2020 Playoffs | East Semifinals: (2) Raptors vs. (3) Celtics

What to watch for in Game 7: Lineup adjustments and spotlight on Jayson Tatum

We probably haven’t had enough time to digest everything that happened in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday, a double-overtime thriller in which the Toronto Raptors edged the Boston Celtics to push the series to the limit.

But the third Game 7 of these playoffs is here, set to tip off Friday at 9 ET on TNT. Every game of a series is different and we can probably expect the unexpected in a Game 7. But with a trip to the Eastern Conference finals on the line, here are two things to watch for, along with a few more notes to get you ready…

Toronto small ball

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6 that he’d been looking to get to his small-ball lineup — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — for a few games.

“It’s about three games in the making,” Nurse said. “I’ve been talking about doing it and getting to it for a long time, and I just had never found that or pulled the trigger until we got way down the other night.”

That lineup played about five minutes in Game 2 of the first round, less than a minute in the fourth quarter of Game 1 (with Boston up 24), and four minutes (as a transitional lineup) over the second and third quarters of Game 5.

Nurse then went to it with 8:22 to go in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, after the Celtics got (and made) open 3s on four straight possessions to turn a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead. On the first of those, Serge Ibaka was a little slow with a close-out. The second was created by Kemba Walker getting a half step on Ibaka’s pick-and-roll coverage. So Nurse decided to sacrifice size for speed.

“It just gives us a little bit better chance to guard them,” Nurse said of the small lineup. “That’s the main thing. It’s tough when Kemba’s so fast and it’s hard for our bigs sometimes to keep up with him when they’re up, because he can shoot the 3. You’ve got to be up, and then if you creep up too far he darts by you.”

At that 8:22 mark of the fourth, the Celtics had scored 89 points on 76 possessions (1.17 per). The small-ball lineup played the rest of the game (save for Marc Gasol checking in for the Raptors’ last possession of regulation) and Boston scored 33 points on 35 possessions (0.94 per) from that point forward.

There were possessions where the speed paid off. With 3:20 left in the fourth quarter, Anunoby hedged a Walker/Daniel Theis pick-and-roll, prevented a pass to Theis in the paint, and then Siakam shut down a late-clock drive from Jayson Tatum. With Jaylen Brown’s put-back coming just a tick after the shot clock expired, every second in that possession mattered.

Early in the first overtime, Anunoby was able to hedge and recover again, forcing a tough step-back (from Brown) himself. And the biggest defensive possession of the second overtime – Powell’s clean strip of Tatum – was a result of the all five defenders being able to swarm and scramble.

The small ball paid off on offense, too. With the Raptors down three in the first overtime, Anunoby set a sideline screen for VanVleet, who beat Theis off the dribble, collapsed the defense, and fed Powell in the corner for a 3 that tied the game. And in the second OT, Theis was slow to recover to Anunoby on a pick-and-pop 3 that put the Raptors up one (right before the Powell steal).

After scoring well over a point per possession over the first 39 1/2 minutes of Game 6, the Raptors scored 37 points on 37 possessions with the small lineup. But Nurse liked what he saw on that end of the floor.

“We were doing it more for some better chances defensively,” Nurse said Thursday after reviewing the Game 6 film. “I thought at the offensive end it really spread the ball around. Norm was making shots, OG popped, made a shot, OG drove and kicked one out, Fred and Kyle. There was a lot more I think happening at the offensive end that made us more difficult to guard.”

Back on defense, there were examples were the Raptors were too small. With Toronto up four in the fourth quarter, the Celtics were able to tie the game with two Theis buckets. The first was an easy put-back and the second was a dunk after he established early position down low against Anunoby. And early in the first OT, Anunoby provided far-less-than-Ibaka-level rim protection when Brown drove past Lowry.

Tatum as Dirk Nowitzki

Another big component of those last 15 minutes of Game 6, which wasn’t necessarily tied to the Raptors playing small, was Tatum and Walker screening for each other in an effort to get VanVleet switched onto Tatum. The Celtics often used an action that the Dallas Mavericks would use to get Dirk Nowitzki defended by a small guard at or above the nail (the middle of the foul line).

Here are some examples…

Play 1: Powell switches Tatum’s screen for Walker and Tatum catches the ball at the top of the key. But before he attacks VanVleet, he hits Brown in the left corner, open because Lowry is shading toward the mismatch. Brown misses the open 3.

Play 2: Tatum catches on the right side of the floor and tries to attack with the dribble. VanVleet is able to stand him up and Marcus Smart misses a contested 3 from the left wing.

Play 3: VanVleet gets over Tatum’s screen and Siakam recovers back to Tatum on the left wing. Tatum loses control on a spin move and turns the ball over.

Play 4: Tatum gets the switch again and gets a half step on VanVleet on a drive down the left side of the lane. Anunoby steps up and Tatum tosses a lob to Theis hanging out in the dunker spot.

Play 5: Tatum gets the switch again and this time takes VanVleet to the low post. Anunoby comes over to help before Tatum even gets the ball and Smart tosses another lob to Theis over the top.

There were more examples of Tatum-Walker screens down the stretch. On the Celtics’ final possession of regulation, Tatum slipped out of the screen for Walker, keeping VanVleet off balance and allowing Walker to get into the paint, where he drew a foul on Anunoby that wasn’t called. Walker got into the paint again via the same action late in the second overtime, feeding Theis with another lob after drawing help from Anunoby.

But earlier in the second OT, VanVleet stayed with Walker when Tatum slipped out of the screen. Siakam then got over Walker’s screen for Tatum and forced Tatum into a step-back airball.

Lowry was Tatum’s primary defender early in the series, but Anunoby has defended him almost as much through six games, and Tatum has shot just 9-for-27 against Anunoby. He’s 8-for-15 in about half the matchup time against VanVleet.

The results of the VanVleet switch at the end of Game 6 were mixed, though you can’t get anything better than those two lobs to an untouched big man. Maybe those lobs are tougher to throw over Ibaka’s help than they are against Anunoby, but even if the Raptors are playing a center, Tatum and VanVleet will be on the floor for most of Game 7. And the Celtics will surely seek out that switch.

A quick rundown

A few other numbers worth noting…

  1. The much bigger difference between Toronto’s wins and Boston’s wins in this series have been on the Raptors’ end of the floor. The champs have scored 107.9 points per 100 possessions in their three wins and just 94.6 in their three losses. The Celtics have scored 108.7 per 100 in their three wins and 106.0 in their three losses. The Raptors are 51-3 (45-3 in the regular season, 6-0 in the playoffs) when they’ve scored at least 105 points per 100 possessions this season.
  2. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the success off Toronto’s offense has come down to 3-point shooting: 37.4% in wins and 27.5% in losses.
  3. The Raptors have won the third quarter in all six games and by a total of 37 points. The Celtics have won the other three quarters by a total of 72 points.
  4. The Raptors are a plus-19 in 67 total minutes with all 10 starters on the floor, though the Celtics were a plus-1 in each of the last two games in those minutes.
  5. A number that helps explain how the Raptors’ defense is a lot different than that of the Sixers: After recording assists on just 48.7% of their buckets in the first round, the Celtics have recorded assists on 60.9% of their buckets in the conference semis. Tatum has an assist rate of 16.8 per 100 possessions used in this series, up from 9.9 per 100 against Philly.
  6. It was noted before Game 6 that Walker’s presence on the floor has made a huge difference in the Boston offense, though that on-off differential (now 26.5 point scored per 100 possessions) was reduced with his 5-point, 2-for-11 performance in Game 6. Lowry has had a similar impact on the Raptors, who have scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions in 253 minutes with him on the floor and just 81.8 per 100 in 45 minutes with him off the floor.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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