The Toronto Raptors dropped their first playoff game in six years on Saturday, narrowly losing an afternoon affair that leaves plenty of question marks heading into Tuesday’s Game 2.
As with any playoff series, there are ample adjustments that can be made. The issue, of course, is that the Nets are also afforded the opportunity to go over tape and make adjustments and counter-adjustments of their own. Jason Kidd didn’t start the season as a great coach but seems to have settled in, and while Dwane Casey isn’t an offensive mastermind, he’s generally shown to be a heady coach when it comes to defensive gameplanning.
Raptors – Defensive Adjustments
So let’s start there, with the defensive adjustments the Raptors may make. The big one will be in how they cover Joe Johnson, who beat them in a variety of ways in Game 1, against several different defensive looks. He did damage off the ball, initiated from post-ups and was willing to pull up from mid-range when Raptor bigs sagged in the pick-and-roll. There’s no easy solution when it comes to Johnson because he can beat you in so many ways, and so it comes down to those tasked with guarding him simply doing a better job, specifically DeMar DeRozan.
Many have focused on the Paul Pierce match-up, which also poses problems. I’m less concerned in this regard, because Pierce really just got hot for a few minutes and the team otherwise did a fair job containing him. Amir Johnson is an okay option on Pierce generally, though he played poorly in Game 1. So long as the Nets don’t put him in the pick-and-roll, forcing a switch that would allow Pierce to body a smaller wing or, worse, face-up against Jonas Valanciunas, Johnson should be able to handle himself. It still poses the problem of Johnson then being lost as a valuable help defender, but the Nets don’t drive a great deal, anyway, and you can’t afford to lose Valanciunas’ offense and rebounding.
When it comes to Pierce and Johnson, and even the lanky, tough-to-check Shaun Livingston, the Raptors can’t even think about doubling the post, not with how well Pierce and Johnson pass and how many 3-point shooters the Nets employ. They’re not going to go 4-for-24 from long range again, and providing them open opportunities to regress to their mean via doubling the post is suboptimal.
Finally, there’s the Landry Fields question. I thought the Raptors would have been well served to dust Fields off late in the season to see what he could provide, but they opted not to and are now faced with the idea of giving meaningful playoff minutes to a player who has played double-digit minutes just once since March 2. Fields is a versatile defender (though some Synergy video revealed that he’s not quite as good on the block as I seem to remember) and could spell any of the team’s wings in guarding Johnson or Pierce. He could particularly challenge Johnson by being steady against any of the ways he tends to get his points (that is, Fields is a “jack of all trades, master of none” defensively, so Johnson couldn’t identify an advantage in the way he can against DeRozan, Terrence Ross or John Salmons).
Raptors – Line-up Adjustments
As much as some may want to see Fields get some run, Casey would probably be better off shortening his rotation rather than adding another body to it. Casey played 12 players in Game 1, something no other team did in their Game 1 match-up except for Oklahoma City and Memphis, who didn’t do so until there was a minute left in a 14-point game. Sure, Steve Novak only played briefly and Nando De Colo, Tyler Hansbrough and Chuck Hayes combined for just 17 minutes, but with how much time there was to prepare – not to mention the four earlier meetings with Brooklyn – the team should have had a better idea of who their eight or nine guys were.
I’d be keeping things very tight, using Lowry, Greivis Vasquez (who can do spot-duty checking twos due to his size), DeRozan, Ross, Johnson, Patrick Patterson and Valanciunas primarily. That’s only seven names, and you know Salmons is getting run, but I’d make the choice between Salmons and Fields and live with that one body unless he’s getting killed. Two guards, three wings, three bigs should be all they need given the amount of information they have on Brooklyn’s plan of attack now.
Raptors – Offensive Adjustments
Can DeRozan please come off a screen with a little more authority? His Game 1 performance was bad and he was far too willing to settle for long jump shots. I get that he maybe wasn’t getting the calls, especially late, and that’s probably incredibly frustrating, but it’s no reason for passivity. One of the issues with Patterson playing so much over Johnson, while it was a net positive on Saturday, is that Patterson isn’t nearly the screen-setter that Johnson is and Valanciunas still has bad habits when it comes to slipping screens early or telegraphing where his teammate is going by beginning his step-two action early. DeRozan has to work around that, though, and remain aggressive, because his advantage against Nets wings is his athleticism on the move.
Other than DeRozan, it’s all about ball control. The Nets force turnovers with the best of them, ranking third in opponent turnover percentage, but the Raptors were generally an above-average team when it comes to holding on to the ball. On Saturday, they had 19 turnovers leading to 17 Brooklyn points, which is simply unacceptable. Call it jitters (DeRozan had three), call it trying to do too much (Lowry had five) or call it taking the good with the bad (Valanciunas had six), they simply can’t give Brooklyn nine additional field goal attempts, many of them easy looks.
Nets – Adjustments
It’s easy to assume the winning team won’t change much, but don’t forget that the Nets didn’t play particularly well in Game 1 either. This was not a case of the Raptors losing narrowly despite playing poorly, so there’s hope for a Game 2 rebound – both teams played below expectations, and Game 2 hinges on who adjusts better. In particular, Brooklyn isn’t going to be ice cold on threes all game, not when they shot 36.9 percent from there on the season. It’s also worth noting that despite the perceived officiating imbalance, Brooklyn only took two additional free throws, even with late-game fouling included, so a Plexiglas game from the refereeing crew shouldn’t swing things too much, anyway.
In terms of adjustments, it will depend who steps up in their frontcourt rotation. Kevin Garnett didn’t look good until late and Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche were ineffective, so Kidd will likely continue to rotate all three until they find a way to shut down Valanciunas inside. Lowry led the Raptors in Game 1 but shot 7-of-18, and it’s unclear what, specifically, Brooklyn could do to slow him, short of sticking Livingston on him a bit more and potentially sacrificing Ross or DeRozan being checked by the 6-foot-3 Deron Williams. Andrei Kirilenko could also be freed, though it’s unclear what defensive role he’d take on if the Raptors wings don’t have it going, anyway.
Vegas says: Raptors -4.5 with 58 percent of action on Brooklyn and a similar percentage hitting the over at 188.5.
ESPN says: A 61.2 percent likelihood of the Raptors covering that spread, though Brooklyn now boasts a 60 percent chance of winning the series outright.
Not to be dramatic, but this is as close to a must-win as you can get. Going to Brooklyn down 2-0 would mean the Raptors need to take at least two games in Brooklyn in this series, which will be no easy task. Perhaps more importantly, a 2-0 deficit for such a young team could be damaging to the psyche, making it difficult to bounce back. You can make plenty of excuses for the Game 1 loss – nerves, inexperience, the referees – and the Raptors were surely on their worst behavior. That doesn’t assure a bounce-back, though, and the Nets are sure to smell blood with what could be a fragile team (and crowd – please bring it once again, ACC).
Still, the Raptors should take this one. The Raptors have beaten the Nets twice this year. DeRozan and Johnson, in particular, should be better, and the ways for Toronto to improve in this one are more obvious than for Brooklyn (other than “hit those threes”). Plus, it’s really difficult to beat a team on their home court twice in a row, especially when the actual talent disparity between the teams is so narrow.
Let’s remain optimistic until there’s concrete reason not to – Raptors by seven, Amir Johnson has a great game (though DeRozan still struggles), and Drake asks me to drop a verse on his next album in post-game media availability.