Another game and another occasion where you’ll run of superlatives for describing Kyle Lowry. This time it was the visiting Nets that fell to Lowry’s sword in a rare matchup that both, was pregnant with promise and delivered on the goods. The Nets, playing on a second night of a back-to-back, came out guns blazing and established an early lead, before the Raptors second unit regained control and ultimately steered them home. The bench outscored the Nets’ 48-20, which is a stat they’re now accustomed to dominating. The second unit provided the key thrusts that pushed the Raptors forward during times of test, especially to start the fourth, and Lowry served as the underpinning structure on which the win was built.
An examination of how the Nets built their 8-point first quarter lead may lead an observer to notice one of the weak points in the Raptors defense. They are a team that’s lacking interior shot-blocking, and once anybody gets anywhere close to the rim, the chances of them getting a solid shot are high. Jonas Valanciunas is half a second too slow in these situations and Amir Johnson isn’t the type of player to hang back, as he much prefers coming out and disrupting passing and bodying people than laying back like a Roy Hibbert-type. Casey clearly understands these tendencies and has put a focus on players dropping down to cut-off drives, pick up charges, and force the play to go back out.
The by-product of this is that the defense will concede clean looks from three, because no matter how good of a defender you are, dropping down and then rotating back against NBA-quality offenses where shot-releases as super quick and ball-movement crisp is a tough order. So when the Nets shot 13-22 (59%) in the first, which included 4-8 from three, it wasn’t that the Raptors were playing horrible defense, the Nets were simply capitalizing on what was on offer.
In the second quarter the percentages evened out and the Nets shot 2-9 from three, and this coincided with Greivis Vasquez going 3-3 in the quarter. There have been some worries regarding Vasquez and I find most of them to be overblown. The reality is that he’s extremely effective at getting a relatively high percentage shot off quickly. The problem is that it’s generally outside the context of any set offense, and looks very much like one-on-one action rather than a product of a greater set. Once you accept this little reality about Vasquez, he becomes easy to digest, because more often than not, he’s taking shots that would be considered fair. It’s when the pull-up threes and early-clock shots get out of control is when he becomes a negative for the offense.
This was a game played at a high pace, which the Raptors are equipped to play, especially if Amir Johnson’s as alert as he was last night. Starting in the second quarter, one of the keys to the Raptors success was to put Amir Johnson in situations where he has to make quick pass-or-drive decisions, especially when guarded by aggressive bigs like Mason Plumlee, or weaker defenders like Mirza Teletovic. His presence of exactly where he is relative to the rim and what angle he has to get his shot off is proving to be very beneficial to the Raptors. It means that you can give him the ball in any situation, whether it be a planned pick ‘n roll, a panicked dump-off, or at the top of the key where he has to make a decision. Chances are that, as he did last night, he’ll make the right one. When he’s healthy he becomes a trump card for any situation because whatever a defense is doing, Johnson can read the play, get into the right situation and execute. His finishing right now is at a level where, if you’d have a choice of running a post-up for Valanciunas or a pick ‘n roll for Johnson, you’d certainly always opt for the latter.
I should probably pause and talk about Lowry a little. Going up against Deron Williams who was having a strong game, Lowry doubled up on his offensive aggression and bent Williams and the Nets into submission. Make no mistake, without Lowry breaking down the Nets defensive shape multiple times on the same possession, the Raptors offense does have a strong tendency of teetering on one-on-one play from Lou Williams, Terrence Ross, and Greivis Vasquez. However, since we have Lowry let’s not worry about that.
Lowry is currently one step ahead of everyone on the court. He knows what pass he’s going to make, what seam he’s going to exploit, and what kick-out he’s about to make before anyone else even has a clue about what side of the court he’s about to use. Defense is all about anticipation and right now nobody can anticipate what Lowry’s about to do, except that he’s going to tune his attack to what the defense is presenting.
[aside header=”Revenge?”]“That Game 7 was definitely on my mind from the time I woke up this morning to even now. It was a bit of revenge, in my eyes”
– Patrick Patterson[/aside]
There’s no scouting report on Lowry which says, “he forces shots after going left”, or “uses a floater when he gets into the lane”, or any of these mundale observations. This makes him difficult to defend because the defense now has to shift its strategy from stopping Lowry the man, to stopping Lowry’s impact on the men around him. Making this even more challenging is that presently his shot-making is unreal. There are no cold areas on the court where he’s not able to get what would be considered an above-average look.
The one-point edge the Raptors held at the half on the backs of their second quarter effort had this game poised for the ESPN audience. The Raptors had Landry Fields and James Johnson taking turns on Joe Johnson, and the latter adjusted his game accordingly. I talked about how Lowry’s able to read the situation and react, the same can be said for Joe Johnson and how he analyzes defenders. He punished Fields’ tendency to swipe by showing the ball just a little, shifting Fields in one direction and then executing a slow but effective move that ultimately sees Fields stuck on his hip. Against James Johnson, it was about brushing him off screens, or facing him up for a pull-up. Having said that, an 8-17 shooting night is a good but not great performance from Johnson, and given how he’s killed us in the past, this fight would have to be scored in favor of the Raptors, if not by knockout then by points.
[aside header=”Rebounding Issues”]
“For the most part in the second half we did a good job of keeping them off the boards, that’s what was killing us in the first half was our lack of defensive rebounding. Lack of just finding a body and going and getting the ball with two hands. It sounds fundamental, it sounds high-schoolish, junior high, but that’s what we’ve got to do.”
“That’s our Achilles heel right now defensively, just rebounding by everybody.”
– Dwane Casey
The Nets’ three-point shooting, in particular Teletovic’s (causing the same problems as Bokie nachbar from years ago), was hurting the Raptors as described earlier. Against a spaced out floor with Deron Williams running pick ‘n rolls with Teletovic and Plumlee, the Raptors defense appeared stretched with defensive rebounding becoming a scramble every time. The Nets outrebounded the Raptors 11-7 in the third (43-42 overall) and shot 47%. However, the Raptors countered with their Lowry-powered offense. He didn’t score any baskets but had four assists, and more importantly, had at least 2-3 Nets pay attention to his movements. This left Jonas Valanciunas (4-4 FG in the third) open multiple times, and set up scoring opportunities for Landry Fields, Terrence Ross, and James Johnson.
The Raptors had extended the lead to 6 in the later stages of the third and momentum was on their side with the crowd ready to put the game away. Joe Johnson, though, stepped up and hit two huge shots to slice the lead back down to 2, and we ended up going into the fourth in a three-point game.
A couple observations I had made at this point were that Jonas Valanciunas has the ball hit his hands multiple times in every game without him collecting the rebound. His reflexes are so poor in these situations that it negates the hard work he does in positioning himself for the rebound. The fear is that I don’t think you can teach or practice this stuff, but perhaps I’m overreacting.
Another point to note is that when other teams try to isolate on Williams, Vasquez, or even Ross, the Raptors defensive response isn’t always adequate. There doesn’t seem to be a structural fallback, or a safety net for individual players getting exploited in the defensive system. That’s partially due to there being some flawed defensive players in the rotation who can’t always read, adapt, and provide help when needed (i.e., Valanciunas, Ross, Vasquez, Williams). Perhaps credit needs to be given to Dwane Casey for getting these individuals to play any sort of defense, and that I’m being too picky when I wonder why the Nets are able to exploit Amir Johnson’s unwillingness to come out to cover Teletovic on multiple possessions in a row.
Back to regularly scheduled programming, and the story of the fourth was the second unit. Casey’s hockey lines are now the norm and so he trotted out a small-ball lineup of Vasquez, Patterson, Williams, Hansbrough, and James Johnson to start the fourth. Whether it was a response to the Nets having Bojan Bogdanovic and Teletovic, or Casey’s own device, I don’t know. I suspect it was Casey valuing offense and preferring to play a more open style of play. This unit gave Casey 5:06 of solid play and extended the lead form 3 to 7.
At this point, Lowry came in wearing a Batman costume and the Raptors went on a 13-2 run, during which Lowry had 6 points and 2 assists. That extended the lead to 18 at 99-81 with 3:15 left and that’s all she wrote. In addition to making shots, the Raptors in this stretch forced jumpers from the tired Nets and took care of the defensive glass, thus ticking all the boxes on the checklist of how to close out a game.
Obviously, huge props to Lowry’s play but also the bench unit that started the quarter and the shot-making ability of Lou Williams and Patrick Patterson, who are both playing extremely confident basketball. It’s especially awesome to see Patterson not hesitate when taking his shots on the baseline, or after drifting wide on Lowry drives. His game is all about movement and he’s finding the space to utilize just that.
Without DeRozan the Raptors have reduced the use of the horns hand-off that they run at the top of the key to get the guards the ball, and instead are operating from the side and top using screens, with lots of weak side action. This subtle change has created more space for Patterson to roam instead of being part of a structured play in tight quarters, and we’re seeing the results. I still think confidence is the #1 factor with Patterson, and X’s and O’s are secondary. At the very least, even if he does nothing else, he’s now able to provide court spacing by simply standing on the perimeter. That’s something that wasn’t there at the start of the season, and add to it small but noteworthy contributions from Landry Fields, and you suddenly are getting production from two sources to offset the loss of your All-Star.
For more individual player analysis, check the reaction. Up next it’s Detroit on Friday before the Knicks on Sunday.
Photo Credit: The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn