There is something to be said about the ingenuity of an Iowan.
The Toronto Raptors were struggling late in Game 2 of the NBA Finals when coach Nick Nurse, a graduate of the University of Northen Iowa, searched for ways to slow down Golden State’s offense.
So he employed an unusual defense used mostly in junior high and high schools and rarely in college: a box-and-one defense designed to limit Warriors star guard Steph Curry.
It frustrated Curry enough that he used the word, “janky” to descibe it. More on that later.
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 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 — cosidered 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 of 18-0 to start the second half, the Raptors trailed by just two points with 26.9 seconds left and eventually lost by five points.
“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.
Granted, the NBA used to have a rule that required teams to play a man-to-man the whole game unless you left your man to double the player with the ball and penalized teams by awarding a free throw every time it was deemed to not be playing man.
But since a rule change 18 years ago, zone defenses are an increasing part of teams’ arsenal, and zone principles are now key in defending the pick-and-roll, the league’s primary offensive scheme. For years, the NBA outlawed zones, forcing players to either guard their man or double the man with the ball.
These days, all that remains of the once Byzantine illegal defense rules is a stricture against standing in the lane without guarding a man for more than three seconds.
The NBA long looked down their nose at zone defense, seeing it as a tacit admission of inferior talent.
So basketball purists cried when Nurse employed the box-and-one.
Curry called the tactic “janky.”
English language purists cried over that since it is not in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, but according to urbandictionary.com it is an adjective meaning “inferior quality; held in low social regard; old and delapidated (sic); refers almost exclusively to inanimate material objects, not to people.” Of course, that website doesn’t even spell dilapidated correctly.
Regardless, the point Curry was making was that it was a junk defense, a gimmick.
Isn’t the idea to win, no matter how, as long as one doesn’t go outside the rules?
Of course it is, especially in pro sports.
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.
“I was just trying to come up with something to stop them,” Nurse said.
It worked. The Warriors went for more than four minutes without a point.
Curry may have been dismissive of the janky box-and-one, but he didn’t score in the fourth quarter.
“It was pretty innovative,” Raptors guard Kyle 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.”
Nurse was born in Carroll, Iowa, graduated from Carroll Kuemper High School in 1985 as a member of the only basketball team to win a state title, coached at Grandview University and led the Iowa Energy to the D-league title in 2011.