Four trends to note in the pivotal game of the series.
How’s the intensity of playoff basketball treating you, Raptors fans?
Me, personally, I was living and dying on every missed shot and made free-throw at the ACC on Tuesday. I rocked the free tee, belted out ‘O, Cananda’ and in all likelihood, taught two pre-puebescent kids every swear word known to mankind. I don’t know about you, but illegal screens from KG gets me riled up. Just switch KG with the names of your guardians, kids!
I digress. Lost amidst the cathartic relief and falling streamers after Tuesday’s win, was the fact that the series was long from over. With Brooklyn and Toronto splitting the first two games, the series now becomes a best-of-five, with home court advantage favoring the lovely hipster-borough of Brooklyn.
At this point, the Raptors and Nets find themselves in something similar to a political race. Instead of wasting resources on their secured states, of which cannot be changed in the short-term, the two teams are angling for every advantage they can get in the swing states. President Barack Obama didn’t become president by winning the state of New York. Rather, he won because he limited his turnovers and secured the glass. Either that, or I’m getting my metaphors mixed up. With that in mind, let’s focus on the four keys to victory.
1. Limit turnovers
Call it jitters, credit the Nets’ small-ball defense, defenestrate DeRozan’s handles — dole out the blame wafers as you see fit, but 19 and 20 turnovers in games one and two leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Here’s one thing traditionalists and nouveau sabermatricians agree on: limiting turnovers is a good thing. Like most sports, winning the possession advantage is vital to victory.
The needlessly childish infogram above shows a breakdown of the Raptors’ turnovers through two games. The obvious standout is Valanciunas, who has turned the ball over more than anyone else. The lazy answer is to blame it all on “playoff jitters”, but I think something else is to blame, and it’s a trend that has borne out over the regular season.
As Zarar likes to point out, Jonas often makes the mistake of keeping the ball low near the rim, which is allowing the Nets to defend them the only way they can — by stripping the ball. Most teams actually have shot-blockers who elect to challenge Jonas at the rim, but the Nets’ strategy of small-ball is akin to, ironically, the Raptors in Jurassic Park. They’re most effective when nipping at the heels of giants like Jonas, so he just needs to keep the ball high, and he’ll be fine.
The more worrisome trend is Kyle Lowry’s turnovers because they’re an indication that the Nets’ swarming defense is working. By sacrificing height, they’ve maximized their mobility, which is wreaking havoc and shutting down passing lanes. A lot of Lowry’s turnovers have come in the pick-and-roll where he’s forcing passes through narrow slivers of space, or over-top of taller defenders. Unfortunately, there isn’t much the Raptors can do on this one.
Overall, limiting turnovers is important because both teams are scoring at the same rate, and I mean literally the same — the eFG% of both teams is within 0.1 percentage points of each other. Therefore, the goal is to win the possession battle.
2. Keep dominating the glass
How did the Raptors overcome a -10 margin in turnovers? By out-rebounding the Nets 52-30. Much of the credit goes to Jonas Valanciunas, who has managed to grab a total of 32 rebounds. He has helped the Raptors jump out to a +30 edge in rebounds in the series thus far.
In part, the advantage is a product of the schemes being employed. The Raptors should out-rebound the Nets given that they’re playing a larger lineup. However, the Raptors have actually been buoyed by Kyle Lowry, who has managed to grab 16 rebounds in two games despite being the shortest player on the court. If they’re unable to close the turnover gap, the Raptors need to make up for it by continuing to dominate the glass. Having Jonas Valanciunas relatively free of foul-trouble helps in this regard.
3. Can Greivis Vasquez maintain his stellar production?
Despite DeRozan’s fourth-quarter heroics, the unsung hero of Game 2 was Greivis Vasquez, who followed up his 18-point, 8-assist performance in Game 1 with a 11-point, 8-assist output in Game 2. He has been the one player who the Nets have been unable to stop, and without his spark off the bench, the Raptors would have likely lost both games.
As I predicted in the ESPN 5-on-5 preview, Vasquez is the X-Factor for this series because his performance — in particular, his shooting — isn’t contingent on the performance of the opposing defenses. He simply gets hot from time to time, and there’s no stopper on the Nets’ bench.
The worry is that he can also get cold at a moment’s notice, and if the Raptors are counting on him to be a 15&8 guy off the bench, they’re bound to be let down more often than not. However, there is something to be said for Casey’s smart deployment of Vasquez, namely by playing him alongside DeRozan in the second unit, which forces players like Marcus Thornton — a terrible defender — to cover Vasquez while the more disciplined defender (Anderson or Kirilenko) to check DeMar. Vasquez has also been effective as the primary ball-handler in the 2-PG lineup with Lowry, as he has a much easier time passing over-top of doubles thanks to his height (6’6).
4. Can Terrence Ross find his three-point stroke before the Nets do?
Here’s a weird stat: the Brooklyn Nets are shooting 23% from deep in 48 attempts from deep thus far. During the regular season, the Nets shot a collective 37% from beyond the arc. Regression says: winter is coming for the North.
For what it’s worth, the Raptors have done a good job closing out on shooters, but the Nets are simply missing a lot of open shots. In particular, Mirza Teletovic showed signs of snapping out of his funk in Game 2, after bricking several wide-open looks in the first game.
And I know I’m not the only one who shit a brick when Pierce took this shot.
The Nets’ shooting woes are bound to end, it’s just a matter of when. In essence, it’s a matter of arbitrage — can players like Terrence Ross snap out of their funks before the Nets end theirs? Ross has only managed to score 5 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the field, and the Raptors have found much more success with him off the court, rather than on. Ross will invariably struggle with Johnson on offense, but he has to help his cause by doing a better job of running Johnson through a maze of screens on the other end. The Raptors can ill-afford Ross’ slump to persist.
I think playing on the road will actually be a relief for the Raptors.
To borrow a phrase from Matt Weiner, we “reek of it like a sweaty salesman knocking on his last door.” We’re so sick of being terrible, we’re so worried about losing, we’re so scared that this season turns out to a mirage — whatever it is, we choke the atmosphere at the ACC toxic with tension, and the players are suffocated by it. Unlike the seasoned crowds in Portland and OKC, we only cheer when the Raptors are up, and when things go south, there’s a deafening silence that rings louder than any “KG SUCKS!” chant. It’s going to help the Raptors to be away from here for a while.
On the year, the Raptors boasted the best road-record in the East with 22-wins against 19-losses, but the Nets held the third-best record at home. Vegas likes the Nets as 5 point favorites, with more money favoring the Nets than the Raptors.
Personally, I think it’s going to be another close contest, as neither team has truly shown itself to be the superior team. However, if the Raptors are able to cut down on their turnovers, and get Ross going, they should win this one. My hometown bias has me feeling optimistic. 2 point victory.