So this is the moment of truth. Pivotal Game 4, either you tie this series back up and steal Mother Momentum back, or you go into the backs-to-the-wall situation that is a 1-3 deficit. The good news is that the Raptors know what they did wrong in the two losses, the bad news is that they haven’t been able to do anything about it.
Take Terrence Ross as an example, he’s been a key part of the rotation since the trade and has supplied three-point shooting and defense all season. He shot 39.5% from three during the season (he’s 11% in the playoffs) and is termed as our best wing defender. It’s safe to suggest that he’s a critical piece of the 48-win season that the Raptors have mustered up. In the playoffs, though, he’s been a write-off for two reasons.
First, let’s focus on his defense. Joe Johnson has 45 pounds on him, and Paul Pierce has 40, both have an inch as well. Both Nets swingmen possess enough moves in their arsenal that they can get Ross onto his backfoot very early in the possession, leaving the sophomore in recovery positions much sooner than he’d like to be. It’s negated his quickness advantage and forced him to defend while off-balance, more looking to avoid the foul than contest the shot. It’s a scary situation for Ross, who is generally used to guarding guys in a face-up stance away from the rim, for example pressuring point guards (remember, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving).
While being charged with tough defensive assignments, Ross has a natural tendency to play the passing lanes, often probing the strong side for potential pick-off opportunities. He’s not a defender who stays home, but one that hunts. This has been problematic as we saw in Game 3, Ross was burned multiple times by Johnson on threes as he was late on the close-out after helping without really needing to help in other areas of the court. When in 1-one-1 situations, the Nets have done very well to isolate Johnson on him, and plan well against potential double-team threats. The doubles, when they have come, have resulted in the Nets kicking off a sequence of passes which lead to a good shot, rather than scampering for cover and protection.
More from RR on Game 3:
- Game 3: Late Comeback in Loss Reinforces Belief That Series Can Be Won
- Dwane Casey: Officiating “broke our back”
- Unedited Podcast: Game 3 Reaction – The Pain
- Morning Coffee – Sat, Apr 26
- Post-game: Raptors 98 Nets 102
Ross is presently stuck in the middle of trying to guard his checks (unsuccessfully), while resisting the urges to roam. It’s a learning experience for Ross, who this series has presented with a first-time opportunity to showcase his defensive skill. It hasn’t happened so far, partially due to his bulk disadvantage, and partially resulting from his natural tendencies to sway away from his man to the strong side, resulting in Landry Fields and John Salmons seeing the light of day. Ross simply needs to improve defensively so he can stay on the floor more, and do better at shooting threes. He’s playing everyone too tight and they just go by him in slow motion. Even the angles he’s giving up to Johnson and Pierce aren’t ideal, with neither end up having to go left to get their points.
Second, shaken defensively, his minutes have been affected and his offense impacted. After averaging 31, 26, and 28 regular season minutes February, March and April, respectively, he’s only played 21 minutes in the playoffs. He’s simply not on the court enough to make an impact. To compound matters, the Raptors are not moving the ball. They’ve had more turnovers than assists over the three games, and a player like Ross who is reliant on his offense being created for him is left waiting. When he does get the ball, the Nets’ strategy of congesting the paint rather than trying to keep up with quicker players on the perimeter means that Ross is left to attack a sagging, stand-still defense. With his jumper not falling and his sheer reluctance for contact in the paint, his offensive contributions have become limited.
To counter turnovers and jitters, Casey has increases his trust in the three-guard lineup of Lowry and DeRozan with Vasquez, with the latter providing a level of composure that has been welcome. Vasquez has seen his minutes rise from his regular season average of 23 to 27, partially at the expense of Ross. Whereas DeRozan provides sufficient offense creation, albeit inefficient at times, to warrant minutes, and can create from a unused dribble Ross does not.
Another guy having an absolute nightmare of a series is Amir Johnson, yet nobody seems to be talking about it since he’s become a bit of a media darling. It also helps his public relations cause that his misfortunes aren’t his fault. He’s lately found guarding guys he has no business guarding, followed by a spell where’s he’s wiping the floor with his jersey. Much like Dwane Casey hasn’t been able to utilize Ross’ quickness advantage to any degree, the same can be said of Johnson’s size. For all that it’s worth, Ross my as well be Mark Jackson-slow, and Johnson may as well be be 5’4″, and they’d have the same impact on the series.
The Raptors are neither here nor there – they haven’t been able to adapt to Brooklyn’s small ball (my suggestion is to bench Johnson in favor of Patterson, and play the former against Plumlee), nor have they imposed their size advantage when the Nets are playing small ball. What we are doing is playing into the Nets’ hands by continually taking jumpers, not running enough sets for Valanciunas, and not involving Amir Johnson at all in the offense. Defensively, he hasn’t had a chance to play at his position so one can’t quite judge him there.
I fished out this comment by Coach, which pretty much sums it up better than I can:
Casey supposedly the defensive mind behind Dallas’ championship team. Hard to believe from this showing. How the f**k do you let Pierce, Johnson and Williams all shoot above 50% when none of them average above 45% on the season? Time and time again all 3 blow by their defenders. And we’re supposedly the younger team.
Williams has legit handles and Lowry’s doing the best he can.
We play Johnson so stupidly. Whoever’s on him gets too tight and Johnson slowly blows by him after lulling him to sleep with the set up dribble. Guy falls behind slightly and Johnson floater. Same thing for 3 f**king games. I haven’t seen Johnson make a shot with a hand in his face yet. We need to back off slightly and see if he can make a contested shot with a hand in his face. I’d take that over the blowby anyday.
Pierce keeps seeing Patterson/Amir on him, and has been abusing. Amir fell to the floor for the countlessth time trying to keep up with him. Patterson and Amir aren’t taking advantage of Pierce on the other end so why play them?! Just adapt to small ball, or figure out a way to make them pay for going small.
That last sentence is basically it: Adapt to small ball, or figure out a way to make them pay for going small.
Casey has done neither. The Nets have played all their cards, we’ve seen what they got and the verdict is that they’re beatable. So far the Raptors have won a game playing the game on the Nets’ terms, which is quite impressive on its own. However, that’s not a sustainable plan to win the series. Casey has enough data, empirical and statistical evidence, and should have enough to counter the Nets’ very mitigable threats. As the above comment so eloquently points out, there’s no reason guys like Johnson, Pierce, and Williams should be getting uncontested shots with the ease they’ve been getting it. It’s up to Casey to counter, and three games should be enough for him to make his play, and if his play is more of the same, then the Raptors are in trouble. His play should start with figuring out why 40% of his starting lineup – Johnson and Ross – have been reduced to nothingness, and how he can make such capable players produce within the constraints imposed by the series.