Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Game 3: Late Comeback in Loss Reinforces Belief That Series Can Be Won

Emotionally devastating loss. For me, that is. I'm not sure how a professional athlete reacts to such roller-coaster affairs where at one point you're down and out, and the next riding a platonic high, only to fall just short.

Raptors 98, Nets 102 – Box

Emotionally devastating loss. For me, that is. I’m not sure how a professional athlete reacts to such roller-coaster affairs where at one point you’re down and out, and the next riding a platonic high, only to fall just short.

The Raptors played poorly for the most part, repeating their Game 1 and 2 mistakes of turning it over, defending shoddily, and relying on a brittle jumper-heavy offense. The Nets could only convert that to a 13-point lead which the Raptors stormed back from in the latter half of the fourth, a run featuring Patrick Patterson and Kyle Lowry scores and DeMar DeRozan getting to the rim, and subsequently to the line. In the end, it came down to some key moments:

  • Vasquez being called for a mysterious foul with 47 seconds left against Deron Williams, down 4
  • Vasquez then being called for a technical, which as Blake pointed out, had to have been due to the Venezuelan accusing the referee’s mother to be of an unsavory profession, since only an offense of that nature would merit such harsh series-altering punishment
  • Kyle Lowry being called for a phantom foul against Shaun Livingston in a one-point game with 20 seconds left, resulting in Lowry fouling out
  • Patrick Patterson missing two FTs with 19 seconds left
  • Landry Fields touching a ball which was going out of bounds on the second Patterson miss
  • More importantly, Livingston clearly fouling Fields as the ball is going out of bounds but no call being made.  When the referees reviewed the play, they couldn’t review the foul, only the touch

Those Patterson missed FTs was all she wrote.  I find it hard to blame him since without him we don’t have a chance to tie the game.

The first order of business in your first playoff road game is to not get blown out early. This was the only objective of the first quarter: to stay in the game, withstand whatever fake crowd noise the arena loudspeakers would blast out, and see to the initial bursts of Nets energy. The Raptors were able to do this. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas were a combined 8-11 FG in the first quarter where the Raptors looked significantly more focused and purposeful than they had the entire series. Just as Brooklyn, spurred by Joe Johnson going against Terrence Ross and Deron Williams finding the fountain of youth, got their offense clicking, the Raptors managed to apply very effective ball pressure. In the final six minutes of the first quarter, Brooklyn was held to 2-9 shooting which included Pierce and Johnson going a combined 0-4 (yes, Fields was on the floor guarding Johnson).

Down four to start the second, the Nets bench gave them a big boost in the quarter. Marcus Thornton got by the Raptors wings (ahem, Ross) too easily, and even though he didn’t finish well, his penetration opened up the Raptors loosely-anchored defense for others. This problem was compounded by the turnovers – in the first quarter the Raptors had 4, in the second they had 6, to only 3 assists. DeRozan had two of the them which led to easy baskets, and thus an 18-6 advantage in points in the paint for the second.

The Nets went on a Raptors turnover and bad-shot fuelled 12-1 late in the second quarter.  Deron Williams, as he had been all game, found acres of space on high-screens since the hedge was poor. Amir Johnson, guarding someone other than the screen-setter, was on the perimeter playing man-to-man, which meant his best asset – his defense – never came into play against Williams who was having a field day. Lowry, hobbled by an knee issue, was visibly slowed down and Williams was quick to recognize and exploit. Matters came to a head towards the end of the second when Lowry went for the steal on a Williams drive and hacked him, which prompted the latter to showcase his version of toughness, which meant walking behind Lowry and taping him on the ass. Kevin Garnett ended up screaming and pointing to his chest, and Alan Anderson appeared to have sodomized Thornton on the bench in excitement, while feigning restraining him . The Nets lead edged to nine, before Lowry free throws and a John Salmons (you read that right) hoop whittled the lead to a slightly less anxious four points.

The second quarter saw the Raptors move away from the relatively stable offense they had featured in the first.  Valanciunas, who was 3-3 in the first didn’t take a shot in the second, and in fact, only took one for the rest of the game (which he made).  That is perplexing, because if there is one Raptor that the Nets have no answer for, it’s Valanciunas.  Other than a post-up where he had the ball poked out from behind in the third, I don’t recall any sort of methodical play designed to get him going.  Casey opted for a guard-heavy offense which featured Greivis Vasquez, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry dominating the ball and trying to create from the perimeter.  The trademark team basketball which got the Raptors here was missing, and reduced to DeRozan volume-shooting his way to a 8-13 point deficit for the majority of the game.  I don’t necessarily have an issue with him shooting jumpers, as 60% of his shots last night were defined as “uncontested”, it is the preceding play that results in those shots that vanquishes your soul: static, dribble-heavy, low-pass offense.

Casey’s choice to play unorthodox lineups in the second that I’m pretty sure were playing together for the first time all year (weird combinations of Fields, Hansbrough and Salmons), had the Raptors in a role-reversal playing small-ball with Tyler Hansbrough at the center to no good effect.  Instead of establishing Valanciunas further, he chose to run post-ups for Hansbrough which is akin to throwing a dart when you have a machine gun at your disposal.  It was just very weird, that’s all.

The third quarter start was ominous – DeRozan missing another 20-footer and Deron Williams getting two at the rim after he got his shoulder past Lowry, something he was able to do all evening without ever having his mid-range game tested. This was surprising because the Raptors had gotten out of jail by only being down six at the half, and I expected them to recognize their wayward ways, count themselves lucky to be in this one, and apply full measures going forward. Unfortunately, they did anything but. The third quarter shot chart has them hanging around on the perimeter going 5-14 (36%).

Valanciunas, again, didn’t take a shot in the third quarter.  The other sophomore, Terrence Ross, was getting eaten alive on defense.  It wasn’t just Joe Johnson that had him on a string, he had trouble guarding Thornton as well.  I almost can’t fault Casey for turning to Salmons, given how ineffective Ross was.  I’m sure his time will come but this game, and potentially this series, is all about initiation for him.  I also wonder how Casey makes his Salmons/Fields decisions – coin flip?  Salmons offered no resistance to Johnson, whereas Fields was marginally respectable.  Given how both are offensive write-offs (though Salmons did hit a couple jumpers and Fields missed a layup) and that they’re main use in this series is defense, I find it hard to accept picking Salmons over Fields.

The game was drifting away from the Raptors until it suddenly came closer.  Midway through the fourth when some were calling for the Raptors to concede the game, I suggested a 13-point lead against a shaky Nets team wasn’t all that, and that we were down because of our doing more than anything.  Sure enough, a few defensive stops, a Patterson three, a Lowry driving And-1 and this was a game, right before the above sequence transpired.

The Raptors stormed back and that has to give them an emotional boost heading into Game 4.  I doubt that had any doubts about beating the Nets, but any that may have crept in during that inept second and third quarters, were surely washed away with how the game ended.  For Patterson, his Nick Andersonish finish to the game could have an impact on his psyche for the rest of the series, or it could fire him up to no end.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Stretches of good play isn’t going to win us this series.  At some point we’ll have to put together a couple good games in a row, or at least back-to-back halves where turnovers are low, DeMar DeRozan isn’t hogging the offense – he took 33% of the team’s shots, compared to 22% in the regular season.  That’s not going to win us games, it’s going to take away from the team-oriented offense that’s been so successful this season and turn this into the DeMar DeRozan show, which looks an awful lot like the Rudy Gay show.  It’s not surprising that the Raptors only had 18 assists to their 17 turnovers on a night where the offense, other than the first quarter, was cringeworthy.  You can laud DeRozan for his great, individual play in the fourth which saw him get to the line 5 times (15 in the game); I’d argue that he wouldn’t need to resort to such heroics if we planned our offense in a more balanced manner.

I still can’t understand the people who want Amir Johnson guarding Paul Pierce.  Johnson is a wreck, he is completely out of our defensive rotations because he’s hanging around on the perimeter protecting the three, when we’re getting slaughtered in the paint on drives.  On offense, he’s an afterthought because he’s generally a defense-fuels-offense guy, and since the defense isn’t there, neither is the offense (he did miss a couple threes tonight_.  I would at least flirt with the idea of matching the Nets with Patterson, and switching Johnson to the bench against Plumlee.

You can point to the missed FTs (29-37 FT), the turnovers (17), or any other statistic to paint how sputtering the Raptors offense was and what they might need to do better. Letting this Nets team shoot 49% for the game (and well over 50% in some quarters) is a slightly harder problem to fix because sometimes you’re only as strong as you’re weakest link and the Raptors have two in their lineup – DeRozan and Ross.  DeRozan cannot guard anyone on any part of the floor, and Ross is too thin for Pierce or Johnson, leaving him to be a liability more than an asset (thus you’re seeing Fields and Salmons).  The side-effect of this is that we’re desperately missing Ross’s three-point shooting and how he spreads the floor, further congesting the space for Lowry and DeRozan.  The Nets love to collapse the paint and right now there’s nobody there to punish them for it.  Maybe Novak, but I can’t imagine what Pierce or Johnson might do to the poor guy if he catches wind of the court.

The Nets picked apart the Raptors confusion on defense with incisive passing, often between bigs.  The defensive spacing was never tuned and the Raptors got basic man-ball-rim things wrong, along with constantly losing Johnson on the wing who drilled enough threes and administered enough fakes for lean-ins, that you wondered if he was game-planned for at all.

The defense for the better part of this game resembled Game 1 more than Game 2, and I feel that this Raptors team is having a very difficult time figuring out how to defend the permanent mismatch on the floor as substitutes and rotations kick in.  Casey will need to simplify matters here so Ross can stay on the court, Johnson’s strengths are utilized (one pick ‘n roll all night), and DeRozan isn’t put in compromising situations time after time.    Easier said than done.  The management of Valanciunas’ minutes and touches is becoming an issue, but do keep in mind that he was a bit hobbled in the second half as well.  Let’s hope Casey recognizes that starving and shackling the man who can ask the toughest questions of the Nets isn’t a good idea, no matter what the lineup on the floor.  For starters, perhaps consider having him rebounding on FTs when an offensive rebound is desperately sought, like it was on that Patterson missed free throw.

It’s a loss, somehow I still feel that the way they closed this game strengthens their belief that they can win this series.  The referees were decisive in this game, the technical call on Vasquez was huge (and silly of Vasquez as well) and ended up equating to the Raptors not having a chance to tie the game on the final play.  That is potentially deterministic of a series outcome, and even talking about it leaves a sour taste so I will defer that discussion.

On a side note, my hate for the Nets grows leaps and bounds.  This is truly a rivalry, and I look forward to silencing their USA, USA chants on Sunday.  This series is there to be had – this was more of a question before Game 1, but is now a statement.

On to pivotal Game 4.