John Salmons is not a dead fish (yet)
I received a lot of flack from the commentors in my Game 4 Quick Reaction post. In part, the outburst was to be expected — nobody wants to read criticisms of the team following a victory. I was, however, thoroughly bemused by the glowing support shown for John Salmons. Apparently, I shorted him by giving him an D+ for his 0 point, 4 rebound performance. A injustice of this magnitude will surely upset the karmic balance, so I should probably watch out for black cats and ladders.
However, upon reflection, the readers were right — Salmons deserved a higher grade for his defense on Joe Johnson. Score one for you guys.
Presumably, by this point, you don’t need me to remind you that Joe Johnson has been a problem for the Raptors (because you read my Breaking it Down article, of course). Johnson’s size and shooting ability has overwhelmed both Ross and DeRozan. His presence in the post commands a double-team, something that the Raptors’ defense could ill afford given the Nets’ wealth of perimeter shooters. Therefore, going into Game 4, the biggest question was “can the Raptors stop iso-Joe?!”
And yet, the game came and went without so much as a peep from Joe. In 42 minutes played, Johnson was basically a non-factor, chipping in with 7 points on 2-of-7 shooting while nabbing 5 rebounds. How did the Raptors manage to keep him in check?
The answer, as you might have guessed from the title, has something to do with the efforts of John Salmons.
To be fair, the Raptors did a good job of containing Johnson as a team. For the first time in the series, the Raptors looked like they had a concerted strategy for guarding his post-ups. They were quicker to double Johnson on any catch inside the three-point line, but they rotated well, and their closeouts were crisper. As a result, Johnson struggled to find any daylight, and was forced to concede possession more times than not.
However, the strategy was made possible by Salmons — and to a lesser extent, DeRozan — who did a good job of containing Johnson by pressuring the ball. Perhaps it’s by virtue of Salmons’ NBA longevity, but the officials afforded him far more leeway on Johnson than they did Ross, and to Salmons’ credit, he took advantage by bodying up.
For example, on this play, Salmons gets right into Johnson’s face at first, thereby forcing him to reset. Then, he sags off, and trusts his help defenders to contain the drive. Johnson ends up turning the ball over when he tries to split the double-team because Salmons is able to jar the ball from behind.
Bodying up on Johnson works for Salmons because Johnson — at age 32 — doesn’t beat anyone with quickness. Rather he gets past defenders by muscling up, which is something he couldn’t do with Salmons, who has good size to match. In this post-up, Johnson tries to pin Salmons behind him, but Salmons alertly pulls the chair, and jumps the passing lane (albeit it was a subpar entry pass from Alan Anderson as well).
Salmons also fared well in pick-and-roll situations, where he shaded Johnson towards help defenders. On the following play, the Nets tried repeatedly to get the ball to Johnson, but were thwarted by Vasquez and Salmons, who showed great coordination. Eventually, Williams managed to deliver the ball to Johnson, but Salmons recovers in-time to force Johnson away from the baseline. Instead, he funneled him towards the middle. Then, since Johnson no longer possesses quickness per se, Salmons was able to track him step-by-step and contest his shot at the rim.
On the whole, it was the Raptors’ defense as a team that ultimately stopped Johnson, but having Salmons at the point of attack on numerous possessions was vital to their success. By not making any mistakes, sticking close, and directing Johnson into help defenders, Salmons was able to leverage his strengths into effective defense on the Nets’ best perimeter player, which is deserving of more than a D+.
So, let’s call it even. How does a C+ sound? No? Well, he was a total dud on offense. After all, there are two sides to the ball.
SportVU Findings: More touches for the front-court, watch out for KG’s passes
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Raptors’ front court have been very successful with the basketball. Valanciunas, Patterson and Amir rank first, second and fourth in terms of points per front-court touch amongst players who have played more than 20 total minutes:
The trouble is, of course, that the Raptors’ guards have not been able to deliver the ball to their bigs, which is playing right into the hands of the Nets. If the Raptors aren’t able to attack from the interior through their bigs, then the Nets have little to worry about — aside from rebounding — when it comes to small-ball. Obviously the task is easier said than done, but a few more post-ups for Jonas, and more pick-and-rolls for Amir will go a long way in this series.
Along a similar vein, the Raptors need to be weary of Kevin Garnett, as he’s been tremendously effective in facilitating the offense from the high post. It’s easy to forget, but Garnett averaged over 5 assists per game for 6 straight seasons — dude can pass.
The Nets like to initiate their offense through the post, be it via Johnson, or on occasion, Garnett. Although he’s played less than 20 minutes per game in this series, he’s received the most elbow touches at 5.8 per game. From there, he either turns to set an (illegal) screen on a hand-off to a curling wing, or he spots cutters with pin-point passes. The key is to not fall asleep on back-cuts when Garnett has the ball.
Two-Point Guard Line-ups
It’s no secret that Terrence Ross has been a huge disappointment through the first four games of the playoffs. Not only is his shot off (17.3 FG%), he’s also turning the ball over on over a quarter of his possessions, and his defense has been ineffectual (see GIF above).
Therefore, it’s no surprise that Casey has often elected to leave Ross on the bench during key stretches of the game in favor of Greivis Vasquez. The 2PG lineup results in an upgrade in playmaking, ball-handling and shooting, which has greatly improved the Raptors, and I mean greatly — the difference between the starting lineup with Vasquez, as opposed to Ross, is a net +8.7.
That leads us to the obvious question — should Vasquez start the game in Ross’ place?
Starting Vasquez has obvious benefits. So far, the Nets have found ways to contain both Lowry and DeRozan via aggressive traps or double-teams. This works for DeRozan because his decision-making and ball-handling under pressure is iffy, and it works for Lowry because he’s too short to make the over-the-top pass to the open man.
However, given Greivis’ height at 6-foot-6, he is able to pass over-the-top and find the open man, which has forced the Nets to alter their pick-and-roll coverage to something more conservative. The added spacing near the ball allows Greivis to drive and kick, or should the big-man show, he’s been able to hit the rolling big.
Starting Vasquez also has ancillary effects on Lowry. With Greivis handling the ball, Lowry shifts to a hybrid combo-guard role, something similar to a Dragic-Bledsoe division of labor, where Lowry is able to catch the ball with motion towards the basket. This has been successful because it allow Lowry to leverage his quickness without the worry of double-teams, as he would in pick-and-roll situations. Also, sparing Lowry the ball-handling duties should in theory reduce the amount of wear-and-tear on his already broken body.
The worry with starting Vasquez is that there would be no one to shepherd the second unit. However, that could be remedied by some changes in minute allocations. Near the 6-minute mark of the first-quarter, Vasquez subs off, while Lowry handles the point. Barring any foul-trouble, Lowry sits to start the second, while Vasquez does his thing with the 4 Kings + DeRozan lineup. Repeat for the third quarter.