Nick Nurse's 'interesting' scheme against James Harden part of why Raptors succeed

TORONTO — If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Raptors have had tremendous success this season limiting superstars with creative defensive schemes. In six games against LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid and Donovan Mitchell, Toronto limited them to 15-of-65 (23.1%) shooting and won five of the six contests.

So, entering a matchup against an all-time scorer on pace for one of the greatest scoring seasons of all time, it stood within reason to expect the Raptors to clamp down on James Harden and dare everyone else around him to be great.

Averaging an eye-popping 39.5 points a night, Harden is doing so by hoisting 10 two-pointers, 14 threes and 15 free-throws. He seems to have understood the math behind it for several seasons but has now cranked the volume all the way up, literally.

“You’re giving up something by putting two people on the ball, you just gotta decide how well you can live with what you’re gonna give up,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before the game in explaining how his team have had success limiting big time scorers. “A lot of it comes down to — once they make the right passes and get it to a guy who’s wide open for three — is somebody springing out of there and flying out there to challenge? Because, you gotta challenge them, if you don’t challenge them, they’re going in in this league. No matter how the rotations are or whatever defence we’re in, we gotta make sure our energy’s good in doing that.

“And then, the next part, do you limit them to one? Because you’re flying out of all these different things, there’s nobody locked in man-on-man to check their man out so the rebounding becomes a whole other configuration.”

James Harden made the Raptors pay with terrific decision making. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto decided to employ an aggressive full-court press on Harden from the get-go, OG Anunoby picking up the assignment while Fred VanVleet would look to double-team the former MVP as soon as he crossed halfcourt. Harden went without a shot attempt in the first six minutes, but made the right play in getting the ball to his teammates and trusting them to make plays. The secondary guard, usually Russell Westbrook, would receive the ball off the trap and immediately attack the heart of the Raptors’ defence, forcing them to scramble the rest of the way.

By the end of the first half, while Harden was held to just six field goal attempts and two free throws, Ben McLemore and Danuel House Jr. combined for 30 points and knocked down 7-of-14 from 3-point range. Toronto trailed by eight, bringing into question whether it was time to change things up.

“You’re always considering it,” Nurse said after the game. “We talked about it at halftime as well. I think it was pretty good. You look up and you’ve got a lead there in the third and you think they’re starting to get the rotations worked out a little better and stringing together some stops, et cetera. And then we just didn’t a couple in a row. I thought about it a bit, but not that seriously.”

Nurse has earned the right to see his theories and — as he likes to put it — experiments play out on the court. Kyle Lowry highlighted that the head coach has the trust of the team and that the players believe the game plan Nurse and his staff put in place will work. Part of this, naturally, stems from attaining the ultimate carrot at the end of the stick last season. Winning a championship serves as the utmost validation for the grind players put in, the “culture” employed by an organization, and the management and tactics of the coaching staff.

It’s something the man opposite Nurse has never tasted, and it may have even cost him winning it all. Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns became a phenomenon, their Seven Seconds or Less offence spawning the league we see today that emphasizes pace and space. But they never won it all, and so as each post-season failure piled on, it pushed D’Antoni to do something he now regrets.

“We didn’t have analytics back then, it was more going by feel,” D’Antoni recalled. “You’d hear it everyday: ‘You shoot too many threes, you’re not posting up enough’ and all that. That’s when it first started. We kind of backed off a little bit but I should have pushed the envelope. So I screwed that one up.”

Would the Suns have won it all if they ignored the naysayers and added some NOS to that high-octane offence? We’ll never know. Nurse playing the variance game against Houston’s role players, in his mind, needed to be played out over 48 minutes. When the Raptors took the lead in the third quarter and better defensive rotations coincided with a bit of a Rockets dry spell, it all seemed to be going according to plan.

In the end, it didn’t, but if seeing how effectively his team could do it answered important questions in Nurse’s mind, the future reference could be crucial. Experiment results: 20 offensive rebounds surrendered, 55 threes allowed (23 from the corners where Houston shot 47.8 percent), 22 made overall with 19 coming from McLemore (career-high eight made), House Jr., P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers, Harden’s lowest usage rate (15.4%) in six years, a 10-point loss.

This is a results business, but the biggest wins are earned by learning valuable lessons from lost battles to push forward and win the war. There may be another time where Nurse has a gut feeling that he needs to get away from it and change things up — he’s shown the propensity to make adjustments on the fly plenty times before — and the fact that he didn’t stray from what he believed was the right decision on the night is commendable, even if incorrect, regardless of the result.

“It was a pretty interesting experiment,” Nurse said after the game. “I’d have to look at the film and see what we could do a little better. If the result turned out the other way around, we’d probably say it was a great experiment. We’ve got to look at it a little more closely to see. I’d never run that scheme before, at all. There’s probably a lot of polish we could put on it to make it better. But it was interesting, interesting.”

There may be plenty to fix about the defensive scheme employed against the Rockets on this night, but Nurse’s process of showing no fear of failure and continuing to search for new and innovative ways to maximize his team’s ceiling is far from broken.

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