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How a Middle School Defensive Tactic Explains These NBA Finals

The Raptors called for a box-and-one defense to stop Steph Curry in the waning moments of Game 2. That choice is more than just a bizarre NBA aberration—it speaks volumes about both teams vying for the league’s biggest prize.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are some sports strategies that you simply never expect to see beyond the middle school level, and especially not on the biggest stage in a given sport. I don’t expect a team in the Stanley Cup final to put a chubby guy in net just because his surface area should block shots. I don’t foresee a team in the World Series hitting its pitcher cleanup because he’s 6 inches taller than all the other kids and can therefore throw faster and hit harder than everyone else. I don’t anticipate a wide receiver whispering to an opposing cornerback in the Super Bowl, “Did you know that if your hand is bigger than your face, then that means you have cooties?” But the Toronto Raptors basically used a middle school tactic in Game 2 of this year’s NBA Finals, opting to run a box-and-one defense Sunday against the Golden State Warriors.

The box-and-one is a defensive approach primarily designed to stop one player. It’s most commonly used in youth basketball, since while it does a good job of containing one opposing player, it does an awful job of guarding the other four, and beyond a certain level everyone on the court is relatively competent. A fifth-grade basketball team might have a roster featuring four scrawny twerps and Jimmy, the First Kid in the County to Hit Puberty, a 5-foot-7, 140-pound behemoth with a weird half-mustache he’s never been told to shave and a lot of confusing feelings that he’s decided to channel into athletic dominance. NBA teams, though, put five professional basketball players on the floor at all times.

Yet the Raptors, stunningly, decided to run this defense at the pro level. And not just in the pros—in the NBA Finals, during a series that could change how every player and coach involved is perceived for the rest of their lives. And not just against any team, but the Warriors, a dynasty that is seeking its fourth championship in the past five seasons.

Here’s the ridiculous thing: It worked. Toronto ran its first box-and-one trailing 106-97 with 4:26 left in the fourth quarter. Stephen Curry, the target of the box-and-one, didn’t attempt a shot for the rest of the game, as tireless defender and playoff god Fred VanVleet hounded him from baseline to baseline. The other Warriors missed their next six field goal attempts and committed a turnover as the Raptors scored seven unanswered points to slice the deficit to 106-104. (If Toronto hadn’t simultaneously hit a massive cold streak, it probably would’ve won.) The box-and-one worked so well that Golden State scored only once after it went effect, on Andre Iguodala’s game-sealing 3-pointer. The Raptors weren’t really playing a box-and-one on that possession, as they instead sold out in hopes of forcing a turnover.

It’s possible that we just saw the only five minutes of box-and-one defense that’ll ever be played in the modern NBA. In a postgame press conference, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse essentially admitted the box-and-one was drawn up on the spot. Kawhi Leonard said the team “forgot it was in” a box-and-one during stretches of the closing minutes and gave a hearty “pffffffft” when asked whether the strategy would work for the rest of the series. That takes nothing away from the fact that an NBA team just proved it can succeed using a gimmick defense in the sport’s premier showcase.

And regardless of whether the box-and-one turns out to be a key to this series or just a weird fluke, the fact that it was a story line at all reveals so much about both teams. It offers a glimpse into the state of the Warriors, a juggernaut built on shooting and starpower suddenly reduced to scraps by injuries, and the Raptors, a team that has shown a unique willingness to concoct unusual schemes to deal with opposing stars. A middle school strategy may be our best window into understanding the mind-sets of the two teams currently fighting for the NBA’s biggest prize.

The premise of a box-and-one is explained right in the name. Four players form the “box,” a zone defense with two players positioned near the top of the key and two players near the baseline. The “one” plays man defense, specifically covering one player on the other team no matter where he goes. The purpose of the box-and-one is to stop that player at all costs. Zone defenses in basketball are all designed to guard space over individuals, ignoring cross-court player movement in favor of stopping drives from the perimeter to the basket and emphasizing help defense. The box-and-one makes doubly sure to prevent drives by the target player; he’s already being guarded even before he heads into the teeth of the zone defense.

The reason we don’t see this strategy deployed much beyond middle school is because high school, college, and pro teams are all likely to have multiple skilled players. Let’s go back to Jimmy, our superstar fifth-grader whose voice has suddenly dropped two octaves. He’s now faster than everybody, stronger than everybody, and has a ton of pent-up energy because he’s outrageously horny and can’t explain why. Meanwhile, three of his teammates aren’t even strong enough to hoist the ball to a 10-foot rim from the free throw line, and the fourth has chronically untied shoelaces and loses a sneaker every five possessions down the court. If you’re a youth coach playing Jimmy’s team, nobody else is a threat. The smart move is to focus your team’s entire defensive energy to stopping Jimmy.

By high school, though, Jimmy’s teammates have also hit puberty. Everybody on the court knows how to dribble and pass, and presumably cares enough about the sport to attend at least a few practices a week. In the NBA, everybody on the floor is a basketball expert. And a box-and-one asks four players to defend the entire floor. Guys will get open.

Curry famously faced a similar defense in college. In 2008, Curry’s Davidson Wildcats faced off against a Loyola-Maryland Greyhounds team that was coached by Jimmy Patsos. Patsos called for a triangle-and-two—a defense with the same gist as a box-and-one, except with a three-man zone and two defenders playing man-to-man, both of whom were assigned to Curry. (So far as I can tell, no coach has ever ordered a line-and-three defense. Consider this a challenge, Nick Nurse.) Even against a team as top-heavy as Davidson, this was a disaster. Curry spent most of the game standing in the corner and finished with zero points. Davidson still won 78-48. Curry later joked that he had the best seat in the house; Patsos, meanwhile, saw the result as a success: “They’re going to remember that we held him scoreless, or we lost by 30?” (Both, I guess.)

Like the 2008 Davidson Wildcats, the 2019 Warriors also got wide-open looks when facing a defense designed solely to stop Curry. Here’s a clip that shows almost every Golden State possession from the final four minutes of Game 2. The Warriors got great shots on almost every one.

On the first possession, Quinn Cook drives and kicks to an open Iguodala, who sidesteps a desperation close attempt by Pascal Siakam and takes an uncontested 3. On the second possession, DeMarcus Cousins gets into the middle of the box and draws all four defenders. When he kicks it out, only Danny Green is available to defend three shooters across the top of the 3-point arc. A few passes fluster him, and Cook launches an open 3. On the fourth possession, Curry runs off-ball into the paint while four Golden State shooters spread around the arc. The defense can’t guard all four, and Cousins gets an uncontested 3.

Three open 3s, and all three were missed. The problem was the Warriors’ lineup. Iguodala is a 33.3 percent 3-point shooter. Cousins is a 27.4 percent 3-point shooter. Green is a 28.5 percent 3-point shooter. (Cook is actually a good shooter, but let’s move on.) The Raptors were fine with giving most players on the floor wide-open looks, because they feared only one guy.

That’s a strange thing to say about these Warriors, whose dynasty has been built on the 3. They’ve led the league in 3-point percentage three times in the last five years, and recorded the second-highest 3-point percentage in the history of the league in 2016. But most of that success came from Curry and Klay Thompson. That duo accounted for 54 percent of the team’s 3s this season. Curry has five of the top nine seasons all-time in 3-pointers made; Thompson has three seasons in the top 25.

By the late stages of the fourth quarter Sunday, half of that duo was gone. Thompson exited the game with a leg injury. The Warriors were also without Kevin Durant, who remains sidelined with a calf strain, and Kevon Looney, who is out for the series with a broken collarbone. Those players ranked first, second, and sixth, respectively, in minutes played for Golden State this season. As the salaries of Warriors superstars have grown and the list of veterans willing to sign with Golden State at a discount has narrowed, the Warriors have less depth than ever. They played bad shooters because they had no good shooters left. The six healthy players the Warriors had at their disposal who were not in the game for the box-and-one stretch have shot a combined 14-of-46 (30.4 percent) this postseason, with 13 of those makes coming from Alfonzo McKinnie and Jonas Jerebko.

The box-and-one stretch was equally telling about Toronto. This wasn’t the first time the Raptors had deployed an unusual defense in these playoffs to combat a one-dimensional roster. In the Eastern Conference finals, they dialed up a defense on the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo that reminded me of a box-and-one, and that was described by many outlets (including this one!) as a “wall.” Giannis’s strength isn’t shooting but driving, so the Raptors ensured that every defender on the floor crashed the paint to stop him whenever he drove. It wasn’t a box-and-one, as the four nonprimary defenders were in man and not a zone. But functionally it looked like this:

The gamble paid off. Giannis, who averaged 27.7 points per game this season, never scored more than 25 over the final four games of the series, all Raptors wins. During that four-game stretch, his assists were down (from 5.9 per game in the regular season to 5.5) and his turnovers were up (from 3.7 per game in the regular season to 4.0). And the Bucks shooters were trash, hitting just 32.6 percent of their 3s.

The box-and-one probably isn’t the answer from here on out. Thompson is questionable for Game 3 and his health should improve as the series goes on. Durant is out indefinitely, but could possibly return to series as early as Game 4. With either guy in the lineup, the box-and-one would be useless. And even against Curry and randos, the Warriors still generated open looks.

Still, with five games left to determine the sport’s champion, it’s worth appreciating this series’s strange and fascinating dynamic. On one side is a hampered juggernaut, forced by improbable circumstances into becoming one-dimensional. On the other is a coach and organization that have proved willing to experiment with radical defenses at critical junctures. Even if the Warriors win again, I won’t forget the time an opposing coach treated this all-time great dynasty like Pimply Jimmy and four prepubescent scrubs.