Earlier this month, Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse threw out a gameplan smokescreen. The Raptors were preparing for the return of OG Anunoby's and it was about to create some lineup configuration questions. Specifically, would the Raptors keep Norman Powell in the lineup and play small-ball or send the red-hot Powell back to the bench and continue starting Aron Baynes.
"I'm not so sure it presents itself here in the near future," Nurse said of the small-ball lineup, "Just looking at who we're playing. There's some awfully big bigs here coming at us."
He was lying.
Ever since Anunoby's return, the Raptors have fully adopted the small-ball lineup against some of the league's biggest teams. And it's worked. Toronto has gone 4-2 over that stretch with big victories over the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
On the season, Toronto's small-ball lineups without Baynes, Chris Boucher, or former Raptor Alex Len on the floor have a Net Rating of +8.1 in 460 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
By going small, however, the Raptors have also been forced to go big. When Toronto's starters get tired, Nurse has turned to a jumbo lineup with Boucher and Baynes playing together. Since making the switch to small-ball on February 16, Boucher and Baynes have played 46 minutes together. Prior to that Toronto had only played 28 minutes all season with Boucher and either Baynes or Len on the court together.
"That's kind of the way it rolls out because when you're bringing them both off the bench that's just the way the numbers kind of roll there," Nurse said last week.
In those 46 minutes together, Baynes and Boucher are plus-28 over the last six games. On the offensive end, they've been very good together, with an Offensive Rating of 130, significantly higher than Toronto's 112.8 Offensive Rating this season, but what's been most impressive about the tandem is their defensive intensity. Together they've posted a 97.8 Defensive Rating, way better than the Raptors' 110.7 as a team. A lot of that has to do with the way Boucher is used.
By moving Boucher down a spot, it allows him to play his more traditional position. At 6-feet, 200 pounds soaking wet, Boucher doesn't have the physical gifts to defend the post at a high level. And frankly, he would rather not have to bang in the paint against those supersized bigs.
"If I have to do it, I will, but I definitely don’t miss it," he said last week.
So instead of having him fight in the paint, playing power forward allows Boucher to roam freely and contest shots at an elite level.
“It definitely helps a little bit to have somebody stronger to take the big guy, and I can kind of clean up a little bit, rebound, help out off my man. It definitely helps me out," he said last week. "He’s doing a really good job to stay in front of the big so it makes it a lot easier for me to help and if they kick it out for me to go back to my man."
Earlier this season when the Raptors turned to Boucher and Len together, Boucher had a very similar response.
"It helps a little bit when you’re playing against a smaller guy, you can contest a little bit more," Boucher said back in early January. "[It] helps a little bit more on the drive knowing the centre is going to be at the position for the bigs. So I think it just helps me out make a better read."
That's how to optimize Boucher's bounciness. He's at his best when he's free to roam around contesting shots at an elite level. It's why he's leading the NBA in 3-point shot contests and he's second in the league in shot contests overall on a per-minute basis, according to NBA Stats.
Finding success with a jumbo lineup wasn't something Nurse said he was expecting to come from going small. He just wanted to get his five best players on the court together in a switchable and versatile lineup. But instead of finding a successful starting lineup, he appears to have stumbled upon a bench lineup that gets the most out of Baynes and Boucher.