With 8:22 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made a big decision.
Despite a strong first half from Serge Ibaka, as well as a breakout third quarter from Marc Gasol, Nurse decided to close the game with Toronto's small ball lineup of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.
According to NBA.com, the five of them didn't log a single minute together in the regular season. In the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, they logged five minutes together, all of which in Game 2. In Game 6 against the Boston Celtics, they logged 23 minutes together.
It wasn't pretty - VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Siakam and Anunoby scored at a rate of 87.7 points per possession, which ... isn't good - but they were able to make life difficult enough for the Celtics to win in double overtime and force a Game 7.
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Lowry and Powell will get the bulk of the credit for the Raptors pulling out the win, but going as small as they did is only possible because of Anunoby. As I wrote earlier in the season, Anunoby proved to be one of the most versatile defenders in the league this year. Based on data collected by Krishna Narsu of The BBall Index, there were only two players in the entire league (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and James Harden) who had a higher defensive versatility rating than him. While Anunoby guards primarily small forwards and power forwards, he spent a decent amount of time matched up with both guards and centres this season.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Raptors want Anunoby guarding Stephen Curry or Joel Embiid for long periods of time, but he is quick enough to stay in front of speedy guards like Kemba Walker and strong enough to hang with centres like Daniel Theis when needed.
Anunoby's ability to guard all five positions shined through on possessions like this in Game 6:
A big reason for Nurse going small is that Ibaka and Gasol have struggled to defend pick-and-rolls involving Walker in this series. Since neither one of them have the foot speed to consistently hedge or switch in those situations (it doesn't help that Ibaka is currently nursing an ankle injury, impacting his ability to move laterally), Walker puts a lot of pressure on them with his ability to shoot off the dribble. Even though he missed 16 games this season with injuries, Walker made the seventh-most pull-up 3s in the league, nailing them at a 36.5 percent clip. (Containing Walker was clearly a priority for Nurse in Game 6 because he opened the game in a box-and-one to slow him down).
Anunoby guarding centres solves that problem because it gives the Raptors the ability to play the Celtics straight up and switch instead of having one of VanVleet or Lowry fight through the screen while one of Ibaka and Gasol drop back. Anunoby didn't even guard Walker that much in Game 6 - VanVleet, Powell and Siakam each spent more time defending the four-time All-Star, per NBA.com - but it's because the Celtics had Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown set screens for Walker as game wore on, not Theis, knowing they couldn't exploit that matchup anymore.
That switched Anunoby's responsibilities, as he was put in more help positions, requiring him to protect the rim and keep the bigger Theis off the offensive glass. Anunoby isn't as equipped as Ibaka and Gasol to do either of those things - Gasol is one of the league's better rim protectors and Ibaka led the Raptors in rebounding this season - but he held his own.
There were a few times where the Celtics were able to find Theis on a cut...
...and Theis was able to sneak in for a couple of offensive rebounds...
...but Anunoby was able to limit Boston's second chance opportunities...
...and come up with enough stops around the basket for the Raptors to survive.
To boot, Anunoby won three jump balls, two over Theis, one over Brown. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, that was key to the Raptors coming up with the victory, as it helped them win the possession battle in a game where the Celtics actually scored at a more efficient rate.
Anunoby made some timely plays on offence as well. It was his kickout to Powell in double overtime that tied the game at 115 and it was his 3-pointer off of a pick-and-pop from Lowry a few seconds later that gave the Raptors the lead that they would hold onto the rest of the way.
Some of that showed up on the box score - Anunoby finished with a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double - but some of his best work in Game 6 didn't.
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