Will will follow up with a detailed statistical analysis of the series a little later in the afternoon, so I’m left to focus on some tactical elements of the Nets series, and how the Raptors have to excel in order to progress.
Adjusting to Small Ball Lineups
Two of the most used lineups by the Nets happen to be Williams-Livingston-Johnson-Pierce-Plumlee/Garnett. It concedes size in the frontcourt for ball-handling and size in the backcourt. The Raptors like to play Valanciunas and Johnson together, which means that if Valanciunas guards the biggest guy on the court (i.e., Plumlee or Garnett), it results in Johnson guarding Pierce. This can be problematic on defense and beneficial on offense if Johnson. The question is whether Casey retains Johnson in this matchup or gives the more nimble Patterson a crack at guarding Pierce, reducing the latter’s quickness advantage. My view is that having Johnson guard Pierce is too risky because it moves our best interior defender away from said interior. The Nets can exploit this quite easily and ask questions of Jonas Valanciunas’ help defense. Like all things in life, this isn’t entirely black and white, and Casey has to find the right balance of when to use Patterson and Johnson in small-ball lineups. One possible route to take is to have Patterson guard Pierce and shift Johnson to the center, leaving out Valanciunas. Of course, pulling our biggest interior threat isn’t great, but nobody says this has to be a 48-minute move. Finding the right balance of matchups by weighing them against fatigue, momentum and game flow is where coaches earn their money, and Dwane Casey is in the on-deck circle.
Use of Zone
30% of Nets shots are threes (compared to 28.5% for the Raptors) which is good for third in the league. They shoot 37% from three, meaning that it’s a good chunk of their offense. I posted a GIF from one the games with them this year showing examples of two poor close-outs on one possession. If that’s the sort of defense the Raptors intend to play, then they may as well raise the white flag. One strategy to counter their three-point shooting is the use of a 1-2-2 zone which does well to cover the perimeter. A matchup zone could also be effective, but leaves the threat of cutters, and given that the Raptors help/shot-blocking defense is left wanting at times, might be too risky. Essentially, over a seven-game series, Dwane Casey needs to have a few cards up his sleeve that give the Nets different looks. If he trots out with the same sort of defense, even a coach like Jason Kidd in conjunction with their veterans will figure out how to successfully attack. It’s no coincidence that the Raptors defense falling on tough statistical times (allowing more than 103 points in April and a free-falling defensive rating) has coincided with reduced use of zone defense by Dwane Casey, who previously had used it to good effect to throw off teams coming out of quarters. Let’s revisit that again.
Defend Without Fouling
In a series where superstar calls are likely to go the other way, the Raptors have to ensure that they defend without fouling. The worst situation for the Raptors could be if they get into the penalty early in the quarter, and the Nets shoot free throws through Pierce and Johnson’s well-executed fakes. This could prove disastrous as it slows the pace, which favors the older Nets far more than the Raptors, and turns this into a grind. How well John Salmons, Terrence Ross, and perhaps Landry Fields do to contest without fouling is going to be a key factor in the series. Pierce averaged a career-low 4.1 FTs this season – the Raptors have to keep him under that number.
Get to the Line
For the most part, the playoffs are a half-court game and in that setting a team has to grind out possessions even when the offense isn’t operating at a high efficiencies. Read that as DeMar DeRozan being counted on to bail the team out when the offense is sputtering, and he can do that only if he’s able to get to the line consistently. The onus here isn’t on DeMar DeRozan to drive in one-on-one situations, as that is not his strength. It’s up to Dwane Casey to structure the offense and plays where DeRozan is in good positions to catch hand-offs, timely passes coming off curls, that see him going towards the rim with three-point shooters adequately positioned. DeRozan, for his part, has to realize that the officials will be swallowing the whistle on the same plays where he got calls in the regular season. This is going to be tough to come to terms with, but once he accepts this, he’ll realize that he’ll have to have an extra burst in his drives to get the result he desires.
Exploit the Center
The Raptors may be short on center depth, but they do have a center advantage. Yes, Jonas Valanciunas presents a problem for any of Plumlee, Garnett, Collins and Blatche. He’s done very well to improve the awareness in his offensive moves over the last month, and the Raptors will need to make sure that he’s well-fed. Here’s the catch though: he is likely struggle to start the series due to nerves and the magnitude of the occasion, or perhaps the Nets recognize that sending a second defender throws him off and Valanciunas get flustered. It’s how Casey responds to such tactics that will have far-reaching results. Whether it be sending the helper’s man down the middle as a cutter, or moving the three-point shooter over by a few degrees – the Raptors have to make sure that Valanciunas is a well that they keep drawing water form – either through Valanciunas scores or Valanciunas-initiated offense.
The Shaun Livingston Problem
He’s tall, he has a mid-range game, and he can handle the ball. He averaged 10 points, 4.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds against the Raptors this season. Those are above his seasonal averages of 8.3, 3.2, and 3.2 with good reason. He poses a matchup issue for Kyle Lowry because he’s very comfortable operating out of the post, and using screens to set himself up for open space around the elbows, from which he can drive or pull-up. The Raptors will have some decisions to make regarding Livingston, but ultimately it’ll come down to whether they’re comfortable with Livingston taking on a scoring role at the expense of being a facilitator. The Raptors may have the size at PG to stick with Livingston through someone like Julyan Stone, but playing the latter is tantamount to having an offensive void at one position, which Casey cannot risk. If the Nets are featuring a Williams-Livingston backcourt, then the Raptors matchups work themselves out with Lowry guarding Williams. If it’s Livingston alone at the point, that’s when you have to consider switching the shorter Lowry on Joe Johnson, tempting the Nets to operate out of an inefficient guard-post, and stick someone like Terrence Ross on Livingston and live with the consequences.
Brooklyn is the third worst defensive rebounding team in the league, only ahead of the Lakers and Milwaukee. The Raptors rank 11th in offensive rebounding rate. Put the two together and you’d surmise that this is an area where the Raptors have an edge. That edge, however, depends entirely on whether the lineup has Valanciunas and Johnson present, which is up for debate given the Nets’ small-ball tendencies. From a personnel perspective, the Raptors have enough to get away with a lower shooting percentage by dominating the offensive glass. For example, DeMar DeRozan’s shooting percentages dipped from January to February, February to March, and March to April. He shot 41.6% in April and at 17.8 FGAs takes the most shots on the team. To withstand poor shooting nights by DeRozan, or Terrence Ross due to jitters, or simply surviving an off night from Kyle Lowry, offensive rebounds are critical. Conceding offensive rebounds consistently is often a psychological blow for teams as it’s a deflating event that prompts the defense to start from scratch, which is exactly what the Raptors should aim to do. If the Raptors are able to get more possessions through their perceived offensive rebounding edge, it affords them to play at a slower pace and increases the margin of error for shooting, both very valuable advantages.
Reacting to Ball Pressure
The Nets are third-best in the NBA at forcing turnovers (MIA, WAS). They can apply pressure through Livingston, and have sound defensive players in Kirilenko and Garnett. Possessions are the currency of the NBA and the Raptors cannot afford to have poor possessions that yield low-quality shots, or worse, turn it over. Whether it be guys like Alan Anderson pressuring in the backcourt by playing DeRozan tight, or Garnett trying to get away with swipes against Valanciunas, the Raptors have to be cognizant of what the Nets are trying to do and anticipate their defense. Easier said than done, and requires a ridiculous amount of tape-viewing to get right. A good place to start might be to reduce the amount of ball-handling guys like DeRozan and Johnson have to do, both are poor ball-handlers and you can bet that when they’re dribbling, the Nets are smelling steals. The Raptors do have Lowry, De Colo, and Vasquez that can handle the rock and they should be used as such.
The Stretch Four
You can throw any seasonal bench numbers out the window here because the playoffs are about matchups and more specifically, mismatches. Mirza Teletovic scares me in the same sense that Bostjan Nachbar did in 2006-07 – the Raptors have generally had trouble with stretch fours and Amir Johnson, for me, cannot cover the position well because he’s more comfortable staying inside and meeting offensive players rather than going out and covering them. Patterson, who like Teletovic comes off the bench, is a like-for-like counter and which big man has a greater impact off the bench could decide a game or two so in the series. Teletovic, when combined with guard like Livingston, can move without the ball well and has enough of a drive/shoot game to give the Raptors defense something other than their “big three” to worry about. The Raptors can’t afford to let their bench have big games and the second unit, led by Vasquez at the point, has to maintain enough offensive throughput to cancel out the contributions of the likes of Teletovic.
Passing Lane Accuracy
The foundational elements of the Raptors offense are good screen-setting and ball movement, which is a forced on and a by-product of not having a star player on the team. This is much different than teams where reliance on a particular player to put pressure on the defense and create off of that is the norm. In order for the Raptors offense to function fluidly, they need to be able to accurate, in-rhythm passes. The Nets happen to be third in the NBA in steals and the Raptors are bottom-third in conceding turnovers to steals. The Nets are excellent at ball denial in the post and perimeter, which means that in order for the Raptors to make inbound passes, post-passes to Valanciunas, flares to Ross, hand-offs to DeRozan, or even a simple point-to-wing after a down-screen, the Raptors have to have multiple options/angles to execute simple passes.
Let’s go Raps!