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Notebook game observations: How Toronto used a box-and-one defense to take the ball out of Dončić hands

Luka Dončić received a superstar treatment against the Raptors

Dallas Mavericks v Toronto Raptors

Every time I drove the ball I saw four people in the paint. That’s why I shot only eleven shots. They played box-and-one, they kept doubling me. - Luka Dončić

If you are a die hard Mavericks fan, you must be frustrated. Dallas lost for a third time in a row against the Toronto Raptors on Monday. Things get hard when you miss five key rotation players and three potential starters. But things will get better soon; the Mavericks proved already they are a good team when they don’t have to give the 10th, 11th, and 12th men starter minutes.

Until then, frustrating losses like this will happen. But even frustrating losses can be valuable if the Mavericks will learn from mistakes.

On Monday, Luka Dončić got the superstar treatment from one of the best coaches in the league, Nick Nurse. Nurse used a box-and-one defense to deny Dončić the ball. This is the same tactic Nurse used to stop Steph Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals. Toronto used box-and-one in the Orlando bubble to defend another elite scorer in Jason Tatum.

We all want to see Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals someday, so these kind of painful lessons can be valuable. This type of defensive plan is reserved for the best players and Dončić is already among them. The bigger the threat Dončić and the Mavericks become, the more of these tactics we’ll see in the future.

There is a high chance that will happen as soon as Tuesday when Mavericks face Indiana Pacers. Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren is Nick Nurse’s former assistant and disciple.

The plan

We worked hard to limit his touches somewhat. He didn’t seem to have the ball all the time like he does in some games ... and he kicked it out a lot, which is what we wanted hm to do. - Nick Nurse

The effect

Dončić shot the ball only 11 times against the Raptors. In his previous 7 games, Dončić never had fewer than 20 field goal attempts. Dončić had 9 assists and 20 potential assists. Raptors definitely succeeded in getting the ball out of Dončić’s hands and try his teammates to beat them. The depleted Dallas supporting cast could not do it in this game, as Dallas shot 37.8% from the field and 25.0% from the three-point line. Dallas also had total of 16 turnovers, Willie-Cauley Stein had four, Jalen Brunson and James Johnson had threw each, and Kristaps Porizingis had two.

The execution

Box-and-one defense

Per wikipediaA box-and-one defense is usually used against teams with one dominant scoring threat. The idea is to try to shut that player down by forcing them to score against a dedicated man-to-man player and a supporting zone.”

Basically, four players are playing a zone (in a box format), while the other person is playing man-to-man. In this video clip, you can see four players in a box (square) formation, while a dedicated defender is guarding Dončić.

In the next video, the Raptors combined box-and-one defense with aggressing double-teaming and trapping Dončić in almost all pick and roll situations.

Dončić beat the trap and found Josh Green for an easy layup on this possession. But the main goal of Toronto’s defense was to get Dončić rid of the ball and prevent him from finishing in the paint.

This meant players like Willey Cauley-Stein had the ball more in their hands than they usually do. Cauley-Stein had a usage rate of 20.9% in this game, almost double his season average of 12.9%.

This often resulted in missed shots:

Or in turnovers because the players had to take decisions and make plays that are not used to making:

Triangle-and-two defense

Because of the COVID-19 protocols, the Mavericks lack consistent shooting. End of bench players rarely have sharp shooters. But in rare cases where Toronto respected the best shooter in the lineup, the Raptors played a version of triangle-and-two defense. So, three-man in a zone, and have one player defend Dončić and the other best shooter man-to-man. In this clip, you can see Toronto guarding Dončić and Hardaway Jr. man-to-man, while the other three players are playing zone defense. Toronto was very aggressive doubling Dončić in almost all screening situations.

Watch Lowry here run to double-team Dončić even before the screen was set:

Double-teams in the post

One thing Dallas tried to counter box-and-one defense was to play Dončić in the post more. The post-up offense is an area where Dončić is excelling this season. Dallas often went to Dončić post-ups in sideline out of bounds plays, and out of the time out sets. However, Toronto doubled Dončić in all post-up situations, leaving Dallas perimeter shooters open. Sometimes it resulted in wide-open three-point field goals:

But more often, it resulted in missed three-point shots, as the Mavericks lacked competent three-point shooters:

Packing the paint in transition

Toronto packed the paint any time Dončić drove to the basket preventing him from finishing at the rim. As a counter, Dončić tried to attack the rim in early offense situations, before the Raptor's box-and-one defense was set. But even in transition, Toronto would pack the paint with four defenders, leaving trailing Mavericks open on the three-point line. You can see four Raptors in the paint on this Dončić transition play:

Dončić managed to attack early again and score in transition on the next play:

Full-court press

Nurse threw another wrinkle after these two consecutive early offense attacks generated good looks for Dallas. After Dončić made the layup from the previous video clip, he pressured Dončić with a full-court press and doubled him at mid-court to get the ball out of his hands.

Why did it work?

The Mavericks roster is currently so depleted that end of rotation players are playing over their heads. Dallas lacks shooting to consistently punish defenses collapsing around Dončić. Having your best shooter in Hardaway Jr. goes 0 of 12 in this game made things even worse. It is very difficult for new lineups that didn’t practice together and were not meant to play together, to solve complex NBA defenses.

Things will be better soon, until then we hope this was a lesson learned, one that might come in handy in the future. You never know, Dallas could face the Raptors in the Finals one day.