Gameday: Raptors @ Nets, Wing Issues Cloud Game 4 Outlook

Game 4. Here we go.

It’s Game 4 on Sunday night, and I’m nervous as all hell. From the outset, I suggested the teams would split in Toronto and split in Brooklyn with the home team winning each game from there, meaning Raptors in seven. Even though that’s still possible and even though I’m sticking with it, it’s certainly far more stressful when Brooklyn holds the 2-1 edge than the opposite.

The Raptors have some adjustments they can make for Game 4 on Sunday night at 7 p.m. There are issues, but none have a perfect solution. If they did, basketball would be really easy.

Head coach Dwane Casey has shown already that he’s willing to shake things up to gain an edge. From a 12-man rotation in Game 1 to just an eight-man unit in Game 2 and then back to 10 (okay, 11, but Steve Novak played like one second) for Game 3 as he searched for answers on the wing.

I will say, though, that lengthening the rotation is probably not the answer. Tyler Hansbrough has a role in many match-ups, but short of getting under Kevin Garnett’s skin it’s unclear what his role is in this series. He was forced into action a bit in Game 3 due to foul trouble for Jonas Valanciunas but didn’t acquit himself all that well. Novak, too, is simply a specialist used in very specific situations.

That leaves nine, three of whom loom as a major issue.

ISSUE: Production from the second wing position
Terrence Ross is struggling badly. John Salmons hasn’t really been good for a couple of minutes. The team has played well with Landry Fields but that reality feels precarious given the limits he imposes on the offense.

PlayerMINPtsRbsAstNet Rating

You surely know by now what the issue is with all three of these wing options. Ross looks shell-shocked right now, and while he’s not normally one for nerves, he’s been too big an offensive zero to not explore other options. Ross has shown flashes of great defense this season but not in this series. He’s shown flashes of offensive potential this season but not in this series. It’s a tough situation because it would probably surprise nobody for Ross to come out and be excellent for the next four games, but it seems just as likely he continues to provide little. As a smart man put it to me in an email discussion, though, what was the point of this year if you’re trading experience to win a game? That dynamic changes in the postseason, of course, but it’s not like any of the other options are better.

Salmons is clearly hurting, and he wasn’t playing particularly well for the month or so before his back injury. This isn’t an “RR hates on Salmons” thing. He’s been very, very bad, and hasn’t even been able to do the one thing that’s been a general constant in his game, which is solid if unspectacular defense.

As for Fields, he’s been good when he’s been out there, on one side of the ball. The issue, obviously, is that the Nets don’t guard him, meaning he can basically only play when Patrick Patterson is on the floor, because a Fields-Amir Johnson-Valanciunas lineup leaves atrocious spacing. The Fields-Patterson-Johnson look, meanwhile, has been very good in their 11 minutes together.

Ross shouldn’t be removed from the starting lineup. It’s a bit too reactive and wouldn’t necessarily provide a benefit, plus you can simply hook him early and get the same effect.

Fields is the preferred option right now because he can check Joe Johnson, which DeMar DeRozan has now definitively proven he can’t do. But Casey will have to be very creative with his substitution patterns, because the Fields-Johnson-Valanciunas trio isn’t a good look, and Valanciunas has simply been too valuable an advantage to sacrifice his minutes to help out the wing play.

Playing Greivis Vasquez alongside Kyle Lowry more – they’re already averaging 18.3 minutes together in the series – is an option, too. Vasquez can check Shaun Livingston, odd as it may sound given Vasquez’ defensive limitations, because his shortfall is quickness, not size, and Livingston loves to use the block. It requires DeRozan to guard Johnson though, full stop, and I think we’re all probably tired of hoping that match-up plays out differently.

There’s one other option that’s a bit extreme but might be worth trying out for very short stints – Patterson at the three. He’s a “stretch four” who has primarily guarded Paul Pierce in this series, yes, but he’s also 6-foot-9, 235-pounds, and Pierce and Johnson are basically the same size, anyway. Patterson checking Johnson would be risky if the Nets put Johnson in pick-and-roll situations with a wing or a big, but Patterson could handle him on post-ups. Offensively, Patterson’s role as a stretch-four makes him close to a three, anyway, and this look would allow the Raptors to try someone new on Johnson without sacrificing offense. It’s risky, considering the Patterson-Johnson-Valanciunas look was used for exactly zero minutes this year.

Obviously, there isn’t a great option here. The first hope is that Ross simply plays better. From there, it’s a chess match (and dice roll) of which look will give the Raptors what they need.

Other Notes
*The ball is getting sticky because of DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan improved a great deal as a playmaker this season, upping his assist rate to 18.9 percent but it’s taken a major step back in three games against Brooklyn. The Nets are basically daring DeRozan to beat them, knowing that ball movement is essential to the Raptors offense, and so far they’ve obliged. For stretches, the Raptors focus only on getting DeRozan going, and it means a lot of standing around for the other players on the floor. That’s got to change.

*Somewhat related: please remember you have big men, one of whom carved up the Nets in the first two games of the series.

*One team is going to start hitting threes soon. The Raptors are 17-of-61 (27.9 percent) after shooting 37.2 percent in the regular season and the Nets are 18-of-68 (26.5 percent) after shooting 36.9 percent in the regular season. You could convince me that some of this is related to better defense. It’d be a lot easier to suggest that they’ll start dropping soon, and it will mean trouble for one team if they don’t answer in kind.

*Please, the referees…I haven’t been nearly has upset as everyone else, but the focus needs to get back on the players. The officials have dominated the discussion. I’m not one for conspiracies (okay, maybe a little) or anything like that, and I’m not even that angry as a Raptors fan. The fact that the officiating has been bad, period, makes it hard to discern bias. Are you really hating on one team if you’re brutal both ways?

*These teams are unbelievably close. They’ve now played seven times, the Nets have won four and the total score has been 678-677 Nets. It’s ridiculous, it’s fun, and it’s stressful as all hell.

Vegas says: Nets -4 with 56 percent of action going on the favorite. 58 percent is also hitting the over at 192, which seems about right considering the teams have averaged 193.6 points in their seven meetings, and they’re sure to heat up from long range.

The pick: Raptors by a half-dozen. This amounts to a must-win of sorts, because a 3-1 hole is an incredibly daunting task. Like they answered in Game 2 (kind of), I think they’ll be able to do the same here. I know, it’s a bit homerish to assume that it’ll be the Raptors playing a good 48 minutes before the Nets, but the path to the Raptors improving – ball control, get back to feeding the bigs – is a little more within their own control than “hit those threes” for the Nets. I don’t know, I’ve gotta be optimistic.

I’m nervous, yo.