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Getting inside the mind of Nick Nurse: 4 predictions for ways Toronto may counter attack

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Sixers went into Toronto and surprised a lot of people. With some crucial adjustments by Brett Brown and some stifling defense, the team changed the course of the series and stole home court. I like to look at the stats for these games to see if there are any patterns, (Kawhi Leonard scores a lot) but I prefer to watch film when we’re dealing with one or two crucial games because the stats are mostly of the small-sample variety. For example, the Toronto starters went a combined 9-33 from downtown, many of them clean looks especially for Danny Green. I think their perimeter sniper is due for some positive regression even though JJ Redick has played some very tough defense.

So let’s forget the stats for now and do a film review and see if we can predict what Toronto Head Coach Nick Nurse might want to counter with in game 3.

1) The Sixers are hedging (not switching) on screens: slip and slide counters

Depending on the matchup the Sixers are either switching completely or hedging on screens. Amazingly, the Sixers seemed mostly on the same page all game long on Monday and knew if they were switching, hedging, or doubling based on the personnel. It was pretty to watch. That is not something that went very smoothly in losses late in the year to Atlanta or Chicago. Credit to Brett Brown there, he’s always preached that chemistry on the defensive end is what they needed most.

In game 2, if Leonard came down off a pin down screen, Ben Simmons and James Ennis would switch Marc Gasol and Kawhi Leonard without even appearing to communicate with each other. They just knew. Other times, if Danny Green was screening, his defender JJ Redick, would hedge out onto Leonard to deter a shot or drive for a moment, then scramble back to his man. Look at the contested shots that Kawhi settled for in game 2 when he faced the hedge strategy. As Tom West wrote, Simmons was masterful:

Re-watching the game it seems likely that Nick Nurse is going to have some well-prepped counters for this. For example, he could suggest Leonard hit Gasol on the slip here during these looks:

Marc Gasol, a fiendishly clever player, read that one and “slipped” into the open area but Leonard didn’t like the passing angle and settled for a three.

Another counter they actually used well late in the game was the “slide screen” where Danny Green, anticipating Redick to hedge- doesn’t really set a full screen, he fakes one and then darts to an open area for a good look at a game tying three:

Green isn’t the threat at the nail that Gasol is, so I think we can expect Gasol to keep slipping and for Green to keep sliding like it’s a 10 year old’s summer birthday party.

Embiid will have some tough choices then about helping on Gasol or keeping an eye on Pascal Siakam. Redick will need to take better closeout angles on Green and then box out next time.

2) More Marc Gasol

Because the Sixers put Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam in game 2, the Raps are going to want to get more from Marc Gasol in general. Some of the ways in which they will do that are:

  • posting him up (on Tobias Harris most likely) and drawing doubles
  • pushing the ball in transition where he gets dunks or forces Redick (sometimes the only one back on d) to pick him up
  • utilizing his frenetic dribble hand-off game. If Gasol slips a screen and catches it at the nail, or is simply open anywhere on the court, he uses the space he’s given to pass and pick

Look in the clip below how quickly he gets rid of the ball whenever he touches it. Beautiful basketball here by the Big Burrito:

3) Get Lowry Downhill

After halftime of game 2, Nick Nurse was asked for his thoughts during the TNT Broadcast. He used the word “force” and sideline reporter Rosalyn Gold-Onwude then asked him to define it. His reply was interesting:

“...when you see an opening you take it immediately, right? And you go downhill with some speed. You know in the first half a little bit we had openings and didn’t take em... we gotta cut hard, push gaps hard, pass the ball with velocity.”

Assuming he mentioned that stuff to his players at the half, Kyle Lowry appeared to be the one who took it to heart. Lowry came out in the 3rd quarter in attack mode. I think we can expect to see an extremely aggressive Kyle Lowry from the jump in game 3, as he had some success drawing fouls. If he sees Tobias Harris, James Ennis, or JJ Redick on him I suspect he won’t miss the chance to play with “force” like his coach says when the Philly native comes to put on a show for friends and family.

Here, some of how that might look, he pushes the ball even after two makes by the Sixers. Relentless pressure on the Sixers and the officials:

4) Continue helping off capable shooters until punished for it

This isn’t a counter for the Raptors, it’s more of one for the Sixers. But I expect Toronto to continue to aggressively help off shooters, even ones like Tobias Harris. Philly misses Harris when he’s open for a couple triples pretty much every game. He might want to speak up for himself because the Raptors have had success gambling that the Sixers will miss him (or Jimmy Butler) once Joel Embiid predetermines to shoot, or once Jimmy Butler has determined to shoot.

Embiid has been much better lately as a passer and willing screener but there are still points on the board to be had which would probably buy himself even more room to work with over time. Punishing the Raptors for leaving Tobias would earn himself better spacing. Here, the quick swing to Tobi was probably the right play:

Brett Brown should anticipate these counters and have his guys ready for the chess game on Thursday night.