Raptors: Give the starters a Serge

Ryan Grosman
May 7 · 7 min read
Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

By @RyanGrosman
May 7, 2019

Playoffs are all about adjustments.

Surprisingly, it took Nick Nurse all the way ’til Game 4 to counter the enormous length of the Philadelphia 76ers. And it helped the Toronto Raptors win the game.

Of course, Kawhi Leonard’s herculean performance also had something to do with it.

As we know, the team’s length took a major hit before the playoffs after O.G. Anunoby’s ill-timed (of-course-it-happened) appendicitis.

And while length wasn’t as much of an issue vs. the Orlando Magic, it clearly is now. The 76ers shortest rotation player is J.J. Redick at 6–4.

I tweeted before the series that Nurse cannot under any circumstances use the uber-small Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet lineup. Not even for a minute. Not against the length of the 76ers.

The fact that it took Nurse this long to recognize the futility of continuing to run out the Lowry-VanVleet (and sometimes Norman Powell) lineup is quite scary. Because compared to Nick Nurse, I know nothing. I’m Jon Snow.

To make matters worse, he was putting this undersized lineup up against the 76ers starters to begin the second and fourth quarters. This served to instantly torpedo the Raptors’ defence and undo all the good that Leonard and the starters did.

Nurse should continue to team Patrick McCaw and Powell with Lowry while significantly reducing VanVleet’s minutes. In fact, I’d be happy to bench VanVleet entirely and give all the non-Lowry point guard minutes to Leonard, who did quite a good job of it last game.

Whether it was out of loyalty to VanVleet or just pure ignorance, Nurse’s stubbornness ’til this point was super weird considering how experimental he was throughout regular season. How willing he was to adapt and alter his lineups.

Sometimes it was out of necessity, but not always. He tinkered so much he was deemed the “mad scientist.”

So what was all that toying around for exactly? For shits and giggles?

Perhaps he spent too much time in the Dwane Casey School of Playoff Basketball where you don’t make adjustments until your back’s against the wall or it’s much too late.

And it’s getting really late, really fast for Nurse and the Raptors.

But in addition to finally putting an end to the all-shrimp lineup, Nurse made one other important move.

Whether it was out of necessity because of Pascal Siakam’s calf contusion, which limited him to just 29 wobbly minutes. Or if it was part of Nurse’s Game 4 plan all along. Either way, Nurse decided to employ the rarely used Serge Ibaka-Marc Gasol lineup.

And it worked.

He even went super ginormous for stretches of the 4th with Leonard at the 2, Siakam at the 3 and Ibaka and Gasol at the 4 and 5.

What did this do?

For the first time in the series, the Raptors were able to turn the tall tables on the 76ers by out-length-ing them, improving both defence and rebounding.

But as I type, Brett Brown is devising a way to counteract the Ibaka-Gasol combo. So doing the exact same thing at the exact same time in Game 5 will play right into Brown’s hands.

I shouldn’t have to remind Nurse of this, but it’s the playoffs. It’s Game 5 of a back and forth, blow for blow second round battle between 2 top teams.

There are no more secrets.

It’s time to get creative.

It doesn’t matter what your starting lineup or rotations have been up to this point. Everything is on the line, which means everything should be on the table, no matter how dramatic.

And dramatic is exactly what I’m proposing for Game 5.

Regardless if Siakam is 50% or 100% healthy, Nurse should start the Ibaka-Gasol lineup and bring Siakam off of the bench.

Once Brett Brown takes out Joel Embiid less than halfway through the first quarter, you sub in Siakam for Ibaka. Then you give Ibaka a break and bring him in for Gasol a few minutes later.

Why will this work?


Since Game 1, the Raptors have been absolutely crushed on the boards, giving the 76ers tons of extra possessions and points.

But in Game 4, the Raptors managed to even the rebounding odds, including pulling down defensive rebounds at a much higher clip.

Why? Because Ibaka and Gasol were sharing the floor. Not only can they rebound themselves, they can also box out for others.

This lineup will continue match the 76ers on the boards or even outrebound them if Embiid isn’t 100%.

Interior defence

Just as it improves the Raptors’ rebounding, the Ibaka-Gasol lineup improves their interior defence by building a wall around the rim. Something the 76ers have been doing to the Raptors since Game 2, especially to Lowry, Siakam and Ibaka.

This will take away drives from Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, while forcing them to make outside shots. Only Redick and Butler shoot consistently from the outside. But you still have Danny Green, Lowry and/or Leonard to close out on shooters.

Plus, if Embiid is healthy and back to his dominant, showboating, Game 3 self, you now have two centres to slow him down inside instead of one.

Maximizing Siakam and the bench

Before Siakam decided to trip Embiid in Game 3, resulting in a hampering calf contusion, he was the Raptors’ second option on offence. And in the Magic series and in Game 1 vs. the 76ers, he was damn near unstoppable.

That is until Brown made the very smart decision to put Embiid on him. After that, although he still scored, his efficiency and effectiveness were neutralized.

Yet despite watching Embiid eat Siakam’s lunch and dinner over and over again in Games 2 and 3 to the point that he got so frustrated he tripped Embiid, Nurse was content to just let it keep happening.

Why? Why does Siakam have to take on Embiid when it’s clearly stunting Siakam’s game? It’s like purposely playing with one hand tied behind your back.

But, you know, Siakam is a starter. He started every game of the season that he was able to. So that’s that.

Sounds a lot like Casey to me.

With Siakam on the bench to start the game, he can spell off Ibaka as soon as Embiid exits the game. With no 7–1, 250-pound Embiid on the floor, Siakam is free to feast.

Even if he’s not 100%, who other than Embiid can really stop him? Greg Monroe?

As a bonus, Siakam will bolster the bench, which, as we all know, is in dire need of some bolstering.

Maximizing Ibaka

Anyone who’s watched this Raptors this season knows Ibaka is much better as a starter.

For most of the games that Ibaka has come off the bench, he hasn’t been effective. At least not offensively.

This has clearly carried over into the playoffs.

There could be a couple reasons for his dip in play off the bench.

First, Ibaka needs to be engaged in the offence. Otherwise he loses interest and with it, his concentration. So when he finally enters the game and doesn’t have plays run for him, his commitment level starts to waver.

And once he finally does touch the ball, he often forces up a bad shot.

Second, it’s a huge role change for Ibaka. And it’s a role that’s still relatively new to him.

Before the trade deadline, he was splitting starts with Jonas Valanciunas, depending on the matchup. But since JV is a 7-foot pylon, Ibaka ended up getting most of the starts. And his starts accelerated after JV got hurt.

Even after Gasol was acquired, they split starts all the way until maybe the last few weeks of the season when Nurse solidified Gasol as the starting centre.

So it’s still a new role for Ibaka, which requires a much different routine.

You warm up, take your shots, get a sweat going, then ride the pine for most of the quarter until your name is called and you have to spring into action. It’s not easy if you’re not used to it.

It’s why Ibaka usually improves as the game goes on.

But the biggest and most obvious reason for Ibaka’s torrid play off the bench is Kyle Lowry. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Ibaka and Lowry have great chemistry and work well on the floor together. So it’s no coincidence that Ibaka had his best offensive game in Game 4 after spending a lot more time with his favourite point guard.

VanVleet and Ibaka, on the other hand, are just terrible together.

A lot of this falls on VanVleet who has difficulty giving Ibaka the ball in places where he can succeed. But also, a lot falls on Nurse for continuing to give Ibaka most of his playing time with VanVleet.

So all of this is to say that by starting Ibaka, you’re putting him in a role that he’s used to and cherishes. And, more importantly, he gets to play with Lowry who knows how to supercharge his offensive game.

Throwing a wrench

Brown and the 76ers are now expecting the Ibaka-Gasol lineup. But they’re likely not expecting it to start the game.

Nurse has a chance to throw a wrench in Brown’s plans just as he has done to Nurse. And by the time they can adjust (if they can adjust at all), Siakam will be in the game to throw them for another loop.

If Nurse wants to win this series, he has to return to his mad scientist ways and be more creative. Try different things. Keep Brown and the 76ers on their toes.

Or he can just keep doing the same old, same old and be fishing in a week.

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Ryan Grosman
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