A series preview with Matt Brooks from NetsDaily

The space between bubble seeding games and playoff games feels thin, but that won’t stop us. At Raptors Republic, we’ve already thrown out the mammoth series preview, diving into every statistical indicator for the series. But what of the other side? Now it’s time to chat with the enemy. If I was going to do it, I had to go after the best. Matt Brooks from NetsDaily, an SBNation affiliated site, kindly spent some time chatting with me about the upcoming series. You can find Matt Brooks on twitter here, and you’re going to want to follow him in advance of the series. He’s extremely good, at breaking down film while staying aware of the big picture, and it is worthwhile as a Raptors fan to know the perspective from the other side. Here’s the conversation with Matt.

Louis Zatzman: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. It’s tight windows right now for all of us, with the playoffs coming so soon, so I appreciate you lending so much time.

Matt Brooks: It’s an absolute honor to be included in this wonderful preview to what (hopefully) should be a rather enticing series. Also, shouts to #RaptorsTwitter. Y’all are feisty, knowledgeable folks. I’m a fan of the community. 

Louis: Let’s get straight to it, then. Jacques Vaughn has obviously not been coach for a long time, in terms of games, but what’s changed since he took over? I’ve noticed that the Nets switch a little more on defense, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

Matt: You’re not wrong about the switching AND you’re also not wrong about there being more to it than that. Vaughn has, more or less, overhauled pretty much every existing scheme on both ends of the floor and retrofitted the game plan for this specific cast of odd parts and castaways. Funny timing for this question; I just completed a two-part series detailing the totality of Vaughn’s sweeping changes, both on offense and defense. I’ll run a quick TLDR for both.

On defense, yes, you’re dead on it: The Nets have flirted with some switching here and there. Vaughn’s also shown willingness to adjust based on the personnel of his opponent. Versus the Bucks, he tossed out a 3-2 zone that harkened back to the days of Kenny Atkinson (pour one out for my guy). On Thursday against the Blazers, he even busted out –– and as a Raptors reporter, you’re gonna love this –– some box-and-1 to stymie Damian Lillard! That’s right, the teachings of Nick Nurse have made their way to one of the seven boroughs in New York! Overall, I wouldn’t call defense a bona fide strength for the Nets just based on their cast alone, but Vaughn’s willingness to adjust is at least something to watch for.

Offensively, well, that’s where the real magic happens (relative to expectations). Currently, they’re the seventh-ranked “bubble” offense. Vaughn’s goal is simple: play to the strengths of his best players. Crazy concept, I know!

In all seriousness, the Nets went from an analytically inclined offense that almost exclusively prioritized threes, the pick-and-roll, and at-rim shots (think: the Houston Rockets back when they had, you know, centers) to an offense that’s a whooolleee newww world. *Ahem* Sorry, about that. That Disney+ subscription has really ruined me. 

Anywho, Caris LeVert has become a star underneath Vaughn’s watchful eye, creating buckets primarily out the post and in the painted area where he’s an 80th percentile scorer at his position, per CTG. Joe Harris’ motor has pushed this humming Brooklyn offense to the brink, emphasizing their spacing with his non-stop (literally, NON-STOP) off-ball movement and quick-trigger catch-and-release shooting. Vaughn’s also made Jarrett Allen an integral part of Brooklyn’s offensive process, providing the 22-year-old with elbow touches aplenty to flash playmaking chops that even caught Nets Nation by surprise. Shoot, even a guy like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has looked impressive in a simplified role, knocking down corner trey-balls with 88th-percentile efficiency, per CTG. 

All in all, Vaughn’s doing a nice job on both ends of the floor. He’s malleable, and I think that matters more than we even like to admit when it comes to evaluating playoff coaches. Sounds a lot like the fellow standing on the opposing sidelines in slacks, wayfarer glasses, and a polo, hmm? 

Louis: You’re right there that malleability seems to matter a lot as a coach in the playoffs. We in Toronto learned that especially with Nick Nurse. But it’s been a wild bubble. So much crazy stuff, not the least of which was the Nets going 5-3. Seriously, the Nets were so much fun. One of the best parts. What went into them being so good?

Matt: Honestly, and this is going to sound so much like a sports movie cliché, the Nets played freely. Free of expectations. Much like the darling, dancing Nets of last year, no one expected much from this specific group of G Leaguers, veteran retreads, and season-long backups. Without the weight of not just one, but two superstar profiles and the responsibilities that come with that, every single player in a black-and-white jersey (no grey ones this time ‘round, thank goodness) was able focus on what makes them great, and for some players, spectacular. 

In a way, I’m sure your guys can relate to this too. Yes, the Raps are the defending champs and have protected that honor with commanding bravado. But they, too, entered this season with reduced expectations –– at least in the eye of the unknowing public (boy, Toronto really stuck it to us silly fools). Without the duties of, you know, keeping a superstar happy, providing said star with touches, placating to the demands of said star’s preferences should he have an ideal running mate or two picked out, the Raps, from top to bottom, have prioritized harmonious team chemistry and curation of a roster that’s without any puzzle pieces missing. 

It’s just a joy to watch frictionless hoops, yanno?

Louis: We in Toronto love undersized guards. On that note, do you see any similarity between Chris Chiozza and Fred VanVleet?

Matt: I mean, other than that they’re both undersized guards, no, not really. Their three-point numbers are at least slightly comparable in terms of where they excel from. Off the catch, Chiozza’s knocked down a nifty 53.7% of his looks, while VanVleet’s been just as spectacular at 44% on much higher volume. Generating off a couple of dribbles isn’t so hospitable for either player; Fred’s made 32.7% of his pull-up threes –– not good, not bad –– while Chiozza’s come away successful just 16.7% of the time when dribbling into threes (yeesh). As a whole, though, I find VanVleet to just be a much better deep-threat overall. (Cleaning the Glass would agree: FVV’s an 87th percentile overall three-point shooter compared to “Cheese’s” 74th-percentile ranking.)

Defensively, they’re in different classes. Depending on the matchup, Chiozza can make his way into “passable” territory. He had a strong showing against Kemba Walker back in March, but has repeatedly been left in the dust by stronger, taller matchups in the bubble. Here, De’Aaron Fox (by no means a bruiser, per say) backs Chiozza down from the top of the key to the basket.

Where Chiozza makes up ground is with his playmaking (he’s a wonderful passer, and I wrote about that here back when we were allowed to go to games. Good times). He’s also shown some balance on the floor in terms of offensive production, boasting 96th-percentile overall midrange shooting at his position, though we’ll see if that’s sustainable. He’s an interesting player for sure, but outside of, well, physical similarities, I don’t find them to be particularly alike. A better comp? Think the likes of J.J. Barea. But, uh, T-Wolves Barea. Not Mavericks champion Barea.

Louis: Speaking of ancient history, obviously the last time these teams played, in 2014, things were pretty different. The Nets upset the favourite Raptors, but that wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone. Any chance of that happening again? Is there any through-line from 2014 to 2020, in terms of the Nets?

Matt: I have the Raptors winning in five. Let’s get that out of the way. But I do think the Nets can at least make this an interesting series. Why? 

Math.

The Raptors boast the second-best at-rim defense in the league, allowing just 59.3% shooting in the restricted-area over the totality of the 2019-2020 season (bubble included). Since the start of the bubble, the Raptors have allowed a large share of corner threes: 14.3% of opponents’ shots have come from the corners, the most out of any bubble team.

The Nets rarely pressure the basket and are 16th in at-rim frequency per CTG. Most of their scoring has come from –– yup, you guessed it –– three-point land. They’re 5th in three-point frequency and have shot a combined 37.6% from three in the bubble.

Look, it’d be disingenuous to leave out that Toronto is holding opponents to just 33.9% three-point shooting, 5th-best in the bubble. They force threes from opposing players of their choice. That means lots of GT-for-3! moments, a win for Toronto if you’ve been privy enough to watch an ice-cold Garrett Temple game. But maybe, just maybe, there is a world in which the Nets can go full scorched earth from distance and win a game or two through use of (in my best Mos Def voice) simple mathematics

Louis: On the other end, the Nets employ a pretty fixed drop coverage. Was that the biggest reason why the Nets had an above-average defense this year despite boasting few individual above-average defenders? And if so, how do you see that faring against Toronto?

Matt: So, funny you mention that. I don’t want to say the Nets have completely thrown drop coverage out of the window… But they’ve certainly started experimenting with deploying Jarrett Allen in different forms of defensive coverage. Against the Blazers, Vaughn attempted to cloak Damian Lillard in Jarrett Allen wingspan with some pretty hard hedges and… it didn’t go all that well. As it turns out, giving an All-NBA caliber guard free runways to the basket isn’t exactly the best way to go about winning basketball games. But, I mean, what can you do? Dame is incredible. Truly unstoppable. 

Without the safeguard of drop, Jarrett’s rim protection –– by the metrics, at least –– has tapered off ever so slightly; after holding opponents to just 50.3% at-rim shooting pre-COVID, “bubble Fro” has seen that number fall to 56.8% shooting. Say what you want about Kenny Atkinson (and trust me, the smear campaign in Brooklyn has been a little too noisy for my level of comfort) but KA’s style of zone coverage simplified roles for –– as you said –– not a great cast of individual defenders. But moreover, Kenny’s drop-style D allowed Jarrett Allen (and the revitalized DeAndre Jordan!) to hone in on what they do best: protect the basket like their lives depended on it.  

As mentioned before, Vaughn’s bread and butter on D has been, for the most part, a whole heck of a lot of switching. 

Boy that’d be a mistake to continue.

I almost fell off my couch after looking this up: Per Synergy, the Raptors are the 30th-best half-court offense against a zone defense, on a smaller sample of about 250 possessions. Thirtieth! Dead last! Ay yi yi! 

Toronto boasts four long-range capable bigs in Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and maybe a sprinkle of Chris Boucher. With this in mind, I’d expect (well, more like hope) Vaughn to throw out a 3-2 zone defense –– much like he did versus Milwaukee ––  with Jarrett Allen slotted in one of the two corners, close enough to provide weakside protection should the Nets need it, but far enough away from the paint to capably cover Raptor corner snipers. That’d be my strategy. 

Louis: All that switching reminds me of the other team in this series, Toronto. But they don’t just switch on defense. LeVert’s gonna see a whole lot of doubles, traps, blitzes, and all of Toronto’s other defensive shenanigans. Do you think he can handle all that stuff?

Matt: In the Nets very first game of the bubble, Orlando threw traps at Caris LeVert nearly every time he brought the ball up and it definitely flummoxed Brooklyn’s de-facto restart star, culminating to four total turnovers. Here’s a good example:

I would expect to see Toronto go under just about every Jarrett Allen screen and dare Caris LeVert to detonate from long-range, where he’s shooting just 25.8% from. The Raptors, per CTG, are the bubble’s best defense at halting short midrange shots, which is where the scorching-hot Caris has made his bed in, posting 80th-percentile short midrange efficiency at his position in Orlando. Toronto’s defensive strategy seems problematic for LeVert on the surface. 

What’s even more troublesome is the sheer number of guys Toronto can throw at Caris LeVert: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry (should LeVert post-up), Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, etc. The Raps might be the most well-equipped team for taking away Brooklyn’s main –– and really only –– source of scoring and drive-and-kick playmaking. I expect Nurse’s squad to force the ball out of Caris’ hands on nearly every possession a la Stephen Curry in last year’s Finals. Go ahead and beat us, Tyler Johnson! Nurse will say with glee, while strumming on his guitar, humming sweet melodies of victory.

Shoot, can I go back and change my prediction? Raptors in four? Please? Pretty please?

Louis: As the editor here with final say, you’re definitely gonna be locked in with your ‘Raps in five’ prediction. Sorry. Speaking about being sorry, who the heck takes Siakam? Kurucs? Allen? Bueller? How do you see the team coverage on him looking?

Matt:

*Shudders* 

Egad. According to NBA’s matchup statistics, Brooklyn’s primary defender for the Spiceman (no one calls him that in Toronto, huh?) was Taurean Prince. After that, it’s an odd collection of Joe Harris, Garrett Temple, and a bunch of other Nets that have no real business defending an All-Star like Pascal Siakam according to that resource. 

Siakam is, by far, the biggest point of weakness for Nets. Well, aside from Toronto boasting an almost embarrassing amount of riches to throw at Caris LeVert. I think you’re right: Rodions Kurucs might be the guy to throw at Siakam (*laughs at the sheer ridiculousness of that statement*). He’s got the length, lateral movability, and honestly, toughness to stay with Pascal for at least a couple of possessions… and that’s about it.

Rodi’s also a turnover machine on offense, coughing up the rock with travels aplenty on 19.3% of his total possessions. Fouling has also been an issue, picking up 4.9 fouls per 36 bubble minutes –– second-most of any bubble Net behind Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who coincidentally, will probably pick up some possessions on Pascal as well. In all honesty, you’re probably looking at an “all hands on deck” mentality with Siakam. And, well, that doesn’t sound like a particularly prosperous plan for Jacque Vaughn’s squad. So to fully answer your question about team coverage on Spicy P: It probably won’t be very good!

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