This is what we played the regular season for: a chance to host Game 7 with the ACC crowd behind us and all those other guys in the parking lot.  Now it’s all about rising up to the occasion and delivering the goods.  Nothing else matters.  Whatever has happened in this series thus far can be classified as learnings and everything is leading up to Sunday.  Regarding Game 6, we saw Joe Johnson destroy us again, Paul Pierce undress Amir Johnson, Deron Williams get past Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross revert to the fetal position, and the Raptors, defensively, had no clue on how to rotate  on anything.  The prospect of having such a performance repeat itself on Sunday scares me to death and I try to take some comfort in Dwane Casey hopefully relaying to his team that all that’s happened is a wash and that they need to have one complete game, at home, in Game 7.

We know where the Nets can hurt us and credit to Jason Kidd for exploiting their advantages.  The same can’t be said about the Raptors who have won three games in this series playing the type of basketball that usually would result in losses.  The cohesive ball-movement stemming from crisp passing is replaced by possessions where pressure builds by the second, and with each passing tick of the clock, the eventual shot’s degree of difficulty rises.  The doubles and traps that the Raptors punished teams for earlier in the year are now suffocating them, throwing an offense that’s so dependent on cohesion into panic.  Shockingly, we’ve won three games playing such ball.  I don’t know if we can get away with doing the same in Game 7.

Before we get to the offense, let’s touch on the defense, a defense that allowed the Nets to shoot 68% in the first quarter on their way to a 15-point lead which deflated the Raptors into early submission.  I’ll avoid delving into gory details for the sake of my breakfast staying down, and leave it at this: the Raptors appeared to have no plan on how to deal with dribble penetration, which was coming from all angles tonight, including Deron Williams against Kyle Lowry, and Alan Anderson against Demar DeRozan.  The Raptors were scrambling every time the Nets got into the paint, with multiple players (big + wing) closing out on the perimeter leaving the interior susceptible to a simple pass.  This was essentially the problem of the night: dribble penetration combined by a sheer lack of ability to respond to when the defense is breached.

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There wasn’t a single instance of a Nets big man backing down someone and pulling a move to get a score, yet Kevin Garnett and Andray Blatche went 5-7 and 4-8.  It all came from the perimeter defense being infringed upon and the Raptors failing to deal with the resulting chaos.  A shell-shocked Terrence Ross was 0-4 and, unlike in Game 5 where he hit a couple shots, was a spectator on both ends.  Joe Johnson was allowed to pass out of every double-team thrown at him with ease, with the Nets adjusting by being more active in presenting themselves, leaving the Raptors to trail the play every time.  Amir Johnson, absent in every sense, understandably had trouble guarding Pierce who sliced his way to the rim multiple times in the first quarter, bolstering the Nets’ confidence and shaking the Raptors self-belief early.

Communication on close-outs was poor to start, and as the defense became more and more porous, simple calling of screens became an issue.  Our wings were getting blindsided by Garnett and Blatche screens because nobody had called them out.  A faltering and fragmented defense meant the Nets walked the ball into the rim whenever they wanted, and put even greater pressure on an offense that has sputtered far more often than it has hummed.

The Nets started Alan Anderson ahead of Shaun Livingston on DeMar DeRozan.  The Raptors swingman responded by hitting an array of contested looks in the first quarter, going 4-6.  As Will generally says, bad process leading to good results.  Isolation-heavy ball will only work for a while, and sure enough, DeRozan went 4-12 for the rest of the game.  Lowry, frustrated at the officiating and the ease at which Williams was negotiating him on defense, tried to take the game upon himself and paid the penalty with a poor shooting night (4-16 FG, 11 points).  The larger question, though, is why the Raptors offense finds itself in such isolation-heavy sequences.

To answer that question we need not look any further than how the team handles pressure in the backcourt, which the Nets brought in ample measure.  The Nets were doubling almost every single Raptors player and were allowed to get away with it.  The reason being that the Raptors, when pressured, do not have a plan of how to get the ball out of the pressure, find the open man, and extend the Nets defense.  When DeRozan is pressured his first reaction is to back out, dribble some more, and set himself for a one-on-one move, or worse, unwittingly invite the double out, pick-up the dribble and then desperately seek an outlet.   When Lowry is doubled, he usually does well to drive and kick, except for last night he decided to look for him more than his mates.  When Ross is doubled, he wishes he wasn’t born.  The only person who is composed enough, has good court awareness, and enough ball-handling ability to navigate pressure is Greivis Vasquez, and it’s not surprising that it’s with him at the helm that the Raptors made their modest run in the fourth quarter.

Down by 19 at halftime and 20 to start the court, the Raptors made a run with Vasquez at the point and Jonas Valanciunas having a good spell.  The Lithuanian was taken out of the game with two fouls early, which I didn’t particularly agree with.  This unwritten rule that you have to take a player out after he picks up two fouls is getting to be a bit much.  It plays right into the hands of the Nets, and I thought instead of taking Valanciunas out, the Raptors should have left him in and made him hurt the Nets.  The Raptors weren’t playing inside-out when he was in there,  and when he came out they became 100% guard-oriented.  There were perhaps four or five plays where the Raptors led with their big men, or ran plays which would see their big men finish close to the rim.  The most disheartening part of watching this was knowing that if they simply made that a greater focus of their offense, the Nets would actually have something to think about.

The same problems that hurt us in Game 1 are hurting us in Game 6.  Casey, other than randomizing his double-teams on Johnson in Game 4, has made no discernible adjustments.  Swapping out an ineffective John Salmons for an equally ineffective Terrence Ross doesn’t count for much, nor does flipping the coin between Tyler Hansbrough and Chuck Hayes.  I presume Landry Fields to be injured, though he was listed as available last night.  Tactically, Johnson remains an issue throughout the game, and Pierce at the outset, since eventually Patterson or someone else ends up on him.  The size advantage which Amir Johnson, also presumed to be carrying a knock, has over Pierce hasn’t materialized.  Even after accounting for Johnson being an unrefined offensive player, it’s hard to accept a return of 4 points and 2 points in the games 1 and 6 losses, respectively.  The Raptors are letting Pierce off scot-free.

Much like the Nets took some momentum away from the fourth quarter of Game 5, I’m hoping the Raptors can do the same from the final frame of Game 6.  Their run, which was spurred by several defensive plays being made at the rim by Patterson and Valanciunas, would have seen the the Nets’ 26-point lead slashed to 7 hadn’t it been for Patterson missing a wide open three from the corner.   They have to have taken something from that fourth quarter where they outscored the Nets 24-18.  

The officiating was a factor, not the primary one as that honor goes to the Raptors horrible defense, but a factor.  The push called against Valanciunas for his third along with one of the offensive fouls against him were simply bad calls.  There were a couple instances of Nets players picking up charges when they were clearly moving, on one occasion Pierce had a clear foot on the line and drew the charge.  When the Nets were pressuring the Raptors and throwing double-teams left and right, they fouled on every single possession without a whistle, so much so that Jack Armstrong even pointed it out.  It was that blatant.  Of course, we knew this going into the series and the onus is on the Raptors to accept this handicap, be the aggressor, and force the calls, much like DeRozan has done on a few occasions in our wins.   The 25-14 foul calls in favor of the Nets is disproportionate, even after accounting for the Raptors reduced aggressiveness in the game compared to the previous one.

Game 7 will be a new story.  My concern is that Dwane Casey has yet to make a single, sustainable adjustment in the series which would neutralize even one of the Nets’ threats.  On the evidence of last night there is a lot of defensive cleanup work to be done for the Raptors to present a respectable, cohesive and in-tune defense by Sunday.  Offensively, the Raptors have played a dangerous game in relying on individual brilliance over team basketball.  If everything’s clicking, this could be the the forumula for a Game 7 win.  However, if the Nets are able to pressure the ball again without being made to pay for it through team-offense, this post-season will end sooner than it needed to.

So, to recap:

  • Figure out your rotations off of double-teams
  • Find a way to deal with Nets pressure intelligently, without resorting to iso-ball
  • Hope that one of Terrence Ross or Amir Johnson isn’t a complete write-off
  • Have DeRozan pressure the Nets offense early, and perhaps get their key players into foul trouble for a change
  • Have Kyle Lowry’s individual one-on-one offense be the backup plan, not the one you lead with

We can do this, we just need to be a little smarter.