demar-derozan-vs-joe-johnson-nets-raptors

Nets 94, Raptors 87 – Box

Keep calm but panic.  Stay calm because even though the Raptors surrendered home-court advantage, it was due to errors that are correctable and first-time jitters.  In the case of DeRozan, it wasn’t so much jitters than an earthquake that rocked him to the core, reducing him to Joey Graham levels of effectiveness, or lack there of.  Panic because the Nets didn’t play well either and had served up Game 1, if not on a platter, then in a Styrofoam box that required only moderate levels of dexterity to open.  Neither team played well, and one played worse.

So ended Game 1 and you hope that if one thing comes out of it, it’s that Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross’s playoff virginity is obliterated and they return to being normal, functional players that can react to seeing a defender by not pulling down their pants and running the other way.  Because that is figuratively what happened.

The element of regret and opportunity lost stems from the predictable manner in which the Raptors lost.  In the previews we pointed out the distinct possibility of a complication arising when Amir Johnson guarded Paul Pierce, and so complications arose when Amir Johnson guarded Paul Pierce.  We suggested, based on statistical and empirical evidence, that the Nets tend to pressure the ball and force turnovers.  That ball-control, particularly possessions where DeMar DeRozan’s dribbling were at play, or when he was doubled, need to be carefully thought out, and so the Raptors backcourt combined for 8 turnovers.  More importantly, the Raptors never got the first 10 seconds of the possession right which left them scrambling for the last 14. We mused that Joe Johnson was the Net most likely to cause matchup problems, and so Joe Johnson wreaked havoc.

Shaun Livingston’s impact was predicted as well, and Greivis Vasquez – having a fantastic game – felt the pain of guarding someone who you concede inches and quickness to.  The list goes on.  In fact, I would forgive you for thinking that there wasn’t much preparation done at all, and maybe as we’re keen to forgive DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson’s first-time jitters, so should we forgive Dwane Casey’s.    Jason Kidd has a host of veterans to get him through the game, the man doesn’t need to do much coaching since he has about three on the floor at anytime.  Dwane Casey does, and he didn’t appear to do much planning for this one.

The 29-21 deficit at the end of the first felt like a reprieve because our main guns were either misfiring or riding the bench.  Terrence Ross picked up two early fouls, both avoidable, and found himself replaced by John Salmons. Amir Johnson after being asked to guard Pierce – a daunting task for anyone not used to guarding wings, and very reminiscent of Sam Mitchell asking Andrea Bargnani to guard Hedo Turkoglu  – was taken out of the game for Patterson.  DeMar DeRozan, whose dribbling had the surety of a shopping-cart with a wonky wheel, was borderline immobile as his lack of ball-handling skill hampered his every movement.  He met with the pressure that every scouting report calls for and his response was typically tame, not helped by the Raptors positioning which left him (and other pressured guards) with no option but the screener to pass to – playing right into Brooklyn’s hands.  So much for Casey having the advantage on the sidelines.

Lowry on DeRozan

“They overplayed him. They really denied him the ball. We’ve got to find ways to get a screen and get him more looks, get him open a little sooner, quicker, get him to his sweet spots.”

Kyle Lowry

Usually when 3/5ths of the starting lineup proves to be impotent, the game is lost early.  Not so here since Jonas Valanciunas (17 points, 18 rebounds) showed no sign of jitters and came out loose and looking to administer punishment on Kevin Garnett, who he got into foul trouble.  The weakness conceded by the Nets – the center in the small-ball lineup – was working well for the Raptors.  Kyle Lowry, another starter who came to play and showed no signs of fear, was switched on from the start.  It was the Lowry you’ve come to love, he didn’t skip a beat from the regular to the post-season.  It was the bench that got the Raptors back in it in the second, notably Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson (now guarding Pierce) who were 4-8 in the frame to restore some sort of belief, and send the Raptors into halftime down only four.  The former having a surprising defensive impact in the second as well.

Down only four. At halftime.  While committing 11 turnovers and shooting 35%.  This was a scoreline you’d accept on the belief that it could have been far worse given how Joe Johnson – the man pointed out as the most dangerous of all in the previews – was playing some of the most intelligent basketball of his career without nary a double-team in sight.  He was putting Ross and Salmons on his hip all the way to the rim, using a screen and daring Valanciunas to come out to defend and when he didn’t, drained the short jumper.  He posted up DeMar DeRozan with ease, using superior strength and juke-moves to create.  He might not have deserved an All-Star berth this season, but he was the MVP of this game.

Casey on DeRozan

“They did a good job of double-teaming him.  [When Kevin] Garnett was coming across … into his areas, it was almost like a triple-team. We have to make some adjustments for that in order to free him up a little better.”

– Dwane Casey

The adjustments on Johnson came in the second half – too late in my view – as Dwane Casey sent Valanciunas as secondary help.  The rotations that followed were mediocre and this is where I consider the Raptors fortunate since the Nets missed some very, very good looks.  Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Marcus Thornton missed shots that they generally make (Nets were 4-24 from three), and this is what scares me.  I do expect Ross, Johnson and DeRozan to rebound, and so I expect the Nets to do the same.

Dwane Casey decided that in order to get DeMar DeRozan out of his slump, he needed to feature him in the offense.  That didn’t work, and the increased effort to start possessions with DeRozan as the ball-handler were met with abject failure of the usual kind – poor passes that allow the defense to get set by the time they’re made, turnovers, and low-quality shots. The two-guard lineup was easily the most effective one for the Raptors since between Vasquez and Lowry there’s enough ball-handling to make sure the rock isn’t stuck, which wasn’t the case when DeRozan was featured.  The offense continued to labour, though, with DeRozan playing the full quarter.

I’d like to give the defense credit in the area of persistence – the effort never quite dropped, the rebounding was there (+8 for the game); it was just that there was no plan at hand for Joe Johnson and the Raptors were left to improvise, never a high-percentage option in a playoff game.  Joe Johnson and Deron Williams were simply using superior ball-handling and  intelligent screen-usage (Garnett is still one of the best screeners in the league), and Livingston was using his God-given physical advantage to great effect.  We really are in trouble if Williams decides to return to his Utah Jazz-form in this series, let’s hope this game is an anomaly and he goes back to his soul-sucking ways.

The turnovers were ultimately the problem because they resulted in nine more FGAs for the Nets, a huge margin in such a tight game.  The Raptors had 17 turnovers, which were of the momentum-killing type and allowed the Nets to maintain a 5-8 point lead, and prevented the Raptors from making the surge that would turn the crowd from excited to mental.  The fourth quarter saw Valanciunas subbed for Chuck Hayes, which seems asinine until you realize that Valanciunas was gassed.  This was not a tactical substitution but one designed to give a tired man a breather.  After his hot start, the Lithuanian maintained a high energy and always looked to be a threat.  His turnovers crept up once the Nets doubled on first-dribble, which should prompt an adjustment from Casey that never came – perhaps in the form of an easier outlet for him, maybe a three-point shooter.

Pierce is cold-hearted

“I really feed off the emotions of the crowd, especially on the road. It’s fun when you get to go on the road and beat a team. I think it’s more gratifying than winning at home. I love those moments.”

– Paul Pierce

 

The Raptors did take the lead on a Greivis Vasquez three, but it was short-lived as Johnson, Garnett and Pierce scored back-to-back-to-back to extend to a six-point game with 2:58 left and the Raptors had little to offer in response.  In that spell, the Raptors offense mustered a deep Lowry three after a sputtering possession, Patrick Patterson missing a jumper, Vasquez mssing a contested layup, and a shot-clock turnover.  Pierce, guarded by Patterson, was exquisite late in the game and hit two tough jumpers and a layup (on which he travelled) to keep the Raptors at bay.

I don’t like to complain about officiating and won’t do so.  I will point out that no defensive fouls were called on Brooklyn in the fourth (to the Raptors’  6) which was odd since there were plays where there was definite contact.  When you reflect upon it, this game might’ve been lost before tip-off due to lack of preparation and 60% of our starting lineup having frazzled nerves.  Both are correctable, which is good news.

This series will boil down to how Dwane Casey matches up with the Nets’ smaller lineup.  For example, Amir Johnson, if he’s playing against Pierce needs to punish him on every single possession in some way.  Giving him the ball 22-feet out in a face-up situation is not ideal, as evidenced by the turnover it resulted in.  Some hi-lo plays, with a three-point shooter spaced court, that see Johnson catch and shoot without bringing the ball down might be in order.  Tyler Hansbrough, who has featured in smaller lineups during the season, may have to be used.  Nando De Colo’s speed and pace could throw the Nets a look they’re not preparing for and give them a dose of their own small-ball medicine.  Whatever the case, we can’t go into Game 2 with the same approach and not come out with an 0-2 deficit.

There needs to be some experiments done with a zone because if Livingston and Johnson continue to be problematic, a creative approach may be needed to stop them.  Defensively, Johnson needs to be funnelled to the right help – and right help isn’t Jonas Valanciunas winging it, not knowing whether he’s supposed to stay back or come out.  The Raptors only forced 8 turnovers, which follows the trend of recent defensive performances – we simply aren’t applying enough pressure in the backcourt to disrupt offensive flow and are not getting enough easy baskets.  Everything is a grind and a strain and that is a stressful way to play the game.

The ball is in Casey’s court to make the adjustments, as he’s promised.  The question I raise is whether we even needed to play a game to know what the Nets approach will be.

Some general comments about the day:

  • DeMar DeRozan’s “this ain’t rocket science” approach to the game was a way of convincing himself that it’s no different; it’s a sound positive-mentality strategy which didn’t work because, in truth, the playoff atmosphere and pressure is quite different
  • The shot-clock broke down in the second-half which was quite embarrassing (Nets fans reaction), and when they couldn’t get the sideline shot-clocks to work it was left to the announcer for calling out 10-seconds and 5-second countdowns.  I think this is karma hitting MLSE real hard for screwing with our shirts.
  • Masai Ujiri was seen yelling F**k Brooklyn which was silly; I get what he’s trying to do, but if someone had done that to Toronto, I’d be pissed and would think the guy is a joke.  Jason Kidd’s reaction? “I don’t even know who their GM is”
  • The crowd was fantastic – too bad the Raptors didn’t give them much to cheer about – if they had gotten another stop after taking that one-point lead in the fourth, the crowd was ready to win them the game
  • My opinion this: Not digging the Drake association – it makes too much of the game and the promotion around it about some individual who a good chunk of the fans don’t even relate to.  I do like his comment about Jay-Z eating fondues, but I could do without it
  • Toronto Sun’s cover was also commented on by Paul Pierce, when asked about whether he played a game without a working shot-clock, he responded: “I don’t know because I’m a dinosaur”.  We’re really not doing this playoff thing well so far, and are coming out looking very classless

 

This series is not over, it just requires some work and the Raptors have to be prepared to do it.