It took a magnificent pass from Kemba Walker to overcome Kyle Lowry’s brilliant cheat code on the final defensive possession of Game 3. If you missed it, don’t worry. The referees did, too.
By now, you’ve probably seen the highlight a bunch of times. With the clock ticking down in a tie game, Walker came barreling into the paint, but Lowry stepped up and walled off Walker’s drive to the rim. Just when it seemed Lowry had successfully killed the play, Walker threaded a breathtaking no-look bounce-pass right to Daniel Theis, who dunked with just 0.5 seconds remaining.
Lowry’s step-up was nearly a game-saving play, but his sneaky tactic before Walker’s otherworldly pass revealed Lowry’s brilliance. The Toronto Raptors guard had illegally camped out in the paint to thwart Walker’s drive and dared the referees to call him for a defensive three-seconds violation.
On the play, Lowry was technically “guarding” Theis, but Lowry abandoned the Celtics center for about five seconds so he could strategically plant another body between Walker and the basket.
It was certainly a gamble by Lowry. If he was caught by officials, the Celtics would’ve been awarded a technical free throw and retained possession -- a cataclysmic outcome for Toronto in a tie playoff game with only a few ticks left. Down 0-2 in the series, Lowry was essentially going all-in with a seven-and-three, off-suit.
Or was he? Interestingly enough, the data suggests Lowry was holding pocket aces.
Last May, researchers at The Pudding -- a popular data viz site that rarely dabbles in sports -- discovered something while mining the NBA’s Last Two Minute reports. Researchers Russell Goldenberg and Owen Phillips found that, between 2015 and 2018, NBA game-reviewing officials assessed over 1,400 games and identified 141 instances of defensive three seconds in the last two minutes of close games.
Of those 141 instances, game referees called exactly one. It was, by far, the most-missed call by officials, having gone undetected in 99.3 percent of instances. By contrast, traveling calls were missed 79.4 percent of the time and kicked-ball violations were misses 16.3 percent of the time.
Basically, Lowry dared the officials and they either didn’t see it or deliberately swallowed their whistles. In the next day’s Last Two Minutes Report, the NBA ruled an incorrect no-call on Lowry for defensive three seconds. Walker ended up nullifying it with a beautiful pass, but in poker, you don’t win with pocket aces every time. The Raptors would likely make that gamble again and again because referees almost never call the crunch-time defensive three seconds. According to The Pudding’s research, defensive three seconds hasn’t been correctly called in the L2M reports since December 2018. Lowry’s play was the 29th consecutive missed defensive three-seconds call by referees in the final two minutes of close games. If a rule isn’t enforced, is it actually a rule?
It’s a certifiable loophole. And the Raptors have been exploiting it all season long. Down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, pushing the envelope on illegal defense is their best chance at staying alive.
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After Kawhi Leonard headed home to Hollywood last summer, few expected the Raptors to be championship contenders this season. Thanks to Pascal Siakam’s ascension into an All-Star and a second-ranked defense, Toronto became one of the league’s best stories.
Much like the Milwaukee Bucks, coach Nick Nurse’s defense is predicated on packing the paint and walling off the rim. They may not have Giannis Antetokounmpo manning the backline, but the Raptors allowed the second-fewest baskets in the restricted area this season, according to NBA.com tracking data.
Having a former Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol helps, but the Raptors actually use an old tactic of Tom Thibodeau’s to keep teams away from the hoop. If the offensive team puts a player in the corner away from the ball, the Raptors will oftentimes have that player’s defender roam in the paint, routinely pushing the envelope on getting whistled for defensive three seconds, or “illegal defense.”
The NBA’s official rulebook states that a player must be actively guarding an opponent -- meaning “within an arm’s length of an offensive player and in a guarding position” -- within three seconds. It’s a balancing act for defenders. Literally. Often times, you’ll see a big man “2.9ing” where they touch both feet outside the paint so they can, in referee parlance, “cleanse” the clock. (Keep a close eye on Gasol on a given defensive possession and you’ll see him looking like a tap-dancing Leaning Tower of Pisa on the paint line to avoid the whistle.)
Nurse regularly takes this to another level by going to a zone defense and not playing a traditional man-to-man scheme. In the regular season, the Raptors utilized zone on 466 occasions, the third-highest total in the league behind the Miami Heat (802) and Brooklyn Nets (469). Guarding an area rather than a specific player would, in theory, lend itself to a flurry of defensive three-second calls. This season, the Raptors led all teams this season in defensive three second violations with 24, according to pbpstats.com tracking.
In other words, the Raptors were called for the violation once every three games. That’s an incredibly miniscule tax to pay. Just how many violations before the last two minutes did referees miss? Only the Raptors (teams only see full-game referee reports on their own games) and the NBA know. Neither were willing to divulge that information for understandable reasons.
In these playoffs, the Raptors have doubled their frequency of zone coverage, going to it 85 times, more than the next two-highest teams combined, per Synergy Sports tracking. (Though the Heat led the regular season in zone plays, they haven’t used it once this postseason).
Despite the increased reliance on zone defense, the Raptors haven’t been whistled for defensive three seconds yet this postseason. But that doesn’t mean they’re not doing it. Late in the first quarter in Game 4 against the Celtics, the Raptors were in a triangle-and-two zone, guarding only Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown man-to-man. Serge Ibaka camped out in the paint for 10 seconds without guarding a soul. Brad Wanamaker hit a pull-up 3-pointer, a shot attempt the Raptors will live with.
Early in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics parked rookie Grant Williams in the weakside corner, Ibaka just took up residence in the paint. Ibaka stayed in the paint guarding nobody for six seconds. A few minutes later, Pascal Siakam did the same to Williams, resulting in a Celtics turnover.
The Raptors aren’t getting away with defensive three seconds every play, but they blur the line enough that it stalls opposing offenses. In this series, the Celtics have seen the Raptors’ zone for 70 plays and scored just 55 points, a paltry 78.6 points per 100 plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. With long arms and high IQs, the Raptors’ defense has pressured the Celtics into 17 turnovers in those 70 plays, or about one out of every four plays -- an astronomically high rate. Against Toronto’s man defense, the Celtics are turning it over half as much.
In Toronto’s blowout Game 5 loss, the Raptors used zone a few times early but bagged it after Siakam’s accidental kick to Theis’ neck resulted in two free throws. Nurse would be wise to use it early and often in Games 6 and, potentially, 7. Defensive three-seconds is called less often each quarter, according to The Pudding’s study, and disportionately earlier in the game than any other referee-initiated infraction.
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It’s an open secret among executives and coaches that referees can only call so many game-halting defensive three-seconds infractions before they get tired of it, allowing the defense to break the rules with impunity.
“The refs will get you one time or at most twice early in the game,” one NBA head coach told NBC Sports. “The benefit outweighs the penalty. Refs are just not going to call it. It’s not a sexy call.”
Given their propensity for zone defense, one might assume the Raptors were hit with defensive three seconds several times in a game, but the most illegal defense whistles they received in a single game all season is two, and it happened just once, way back in October against Chicago. The Bulls scored just 84 points in the game.
The Raptors are banking that the referees just won’t call it. And they have empirical reason to believe that. Defensive three-second calls have been in a freefall over the last decade or so. In 2006-07, there were 1,152 defensive three-second calls. This season, there were just 355 such calls (or 395 prorated over a full 82-game season).
Part of that may be due to the rise of the 3-point shot and defenders sticking to shooters out on the perimeter, or it could be referee apathy. Given that 99 percent of illegal defense calls aren’t made in late-and-close situations, the evidence suggests that officials are preoccupied with other calls or just don’t think it’s worth stopping the game.
“The refs just don’t want to call it,” said one NBA head coach. “Because then they feel like I have to call it for someone else and keep watching it. It’s almost better to just ignore it if you’re a ref because then you don’t have to equal it out. Seriously, who wants to call defensive three seconds?”
Whether it was Lowry at the end of Game 3 or several questionable zone alignments throughout the series, the Raptors have so far avoided getting whistled for illegal defense. The Celtics don’t play a true five-out system, leaving themselves vulnerable to a zone that bends the illegal defense rules. The Raptors went zone for only nine possessions in Game 5, resulting in 10 Celtics points on those plays, not a profitable ledger for the Raptors.
But that was one game. Given that the Celtics have struggled to score against it overall in the series, it’d be shocking if the Raptors didn’t rely on it more in a do-or-die Game 6.