Raptors coach Nick Nurse explains team using gimmicky box-and-one defense vs. Warriors

OAKLAND — The Toronto Raptors were struggling late in Game 2, and coach Nick Nurse searched for ways to slow down Golden State’s offense.

So he employed an unusual defense used mostly in elementary and high schools and rarely in the NBA: a box-and-one defense designed to limit Warriors star guard Steph Curry.

What is a box-and-one? It’s a scheme where four players are in zone defense – two near the top of the key and two near the basket and one player defending another player, usually a great player or scorer, man-to-man. The goal: prevent that player from beating you.

“I don't remember ever seeing it in the NBA,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.

The box-and-one – a gimmick in the NBA – actually worked. Toronto got back in the game with defensive stops, and its offense found some rhythm. Golden State won but after weathering an impressive Warriors run, the Raptors trailed by just two points with 26.9 seconds left.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I'm thinking about going box-and-one. What do you guys think?' ” Nurse said Tuesday. “And they were like, ‘Well, what does that look like?’ I drew the box up and who would be where. They kind of liked the looks of Marc (Gasol) and Kawhi (Leonard) being down and Kyle (Lowry) up and Fred (VanVleet) chasing. Kyle was kind of the one that said, 'Yeah, man, that will work, let's go.' "

It’s a sign of respect for the offensive player who gets special attention. “In ninth grade a team played one against me. Very proud to announce that. I had a box-and-one, just like Steph,” Kerr said, joking.

Curry called it a janky defense, meaning inferior and held in low regard.

“Everybody's making fun of me for it, right?” Nurse said.

But if it works, so what, and in the NBA Finals, a coach pulls out of his bag whatever is necessary. 

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“We played some zone during the regular season, and usually you do it when the game is funky and there's a bad rhythm and maybe you can change it just by slowing them down or stopping some of their cutting or whatever,” Nurse said.

“It seemed to protect the rim better for us and stop some of their cutting. And it was good. I don't know, I was just trying to come up with something to stop them.”

It was effective in part because the Warriors were also shorthanded. Kevin Durant missed the game with a strained calf, and Klay Thompson missed the final 7:59 of the fourth quarter with a mild hamstring pull.

"Klay definitely wasn't on the floor at that time," Leonard said. "There's no telling when KD's going to come back either. So I don't think it will work."

The Warriors are without Durant for Game 3, and Thompson is questionable so maybe the Raptors utilize it again on Wednesday.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry passes the ball during the fourth quarter of Game 2. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

The Raptors used the box-and-one on Golden State’s final eight possessions, and confounded the Warriors, who went scoreless on seven of those possessions with VanVleet chasing Curry all over the court and not giving him much space. Curry may have been dismissive of the janky box-and-one, but he didn’t score in the fourth quarter.

The one play the Warriors scored against the box-and-one? Iguodala’s final 3-pointer, which gave the Warriors a 109-104 lead. But go back and look at that play. Leonard almost came up with the steal, and it took a phenomenal, underrated pass from Shaun Livingston to Iguodala.

“I don't know the numbers or whatever it was, but it was pretty innovative,” Lowry said. “The first time a team has probably ever played box-and-one in the NBA ever. So you give Nick Nurse credit for that.”

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