It was always going to be the case that the year after the Toronto Raptors won an NBA championship, the NBA would break. It did, but somehow we’re back. The 2019-20 season remains, though we’re already in late August. There was a 139-day shutdown in the middle due to the ongoing global pandemic, but the Toronto Raptors remain defending NBA champions. First up, the Brooklyn Nets and their awful grey court. It does make sense that the Raptors get the Nets in this, Toronto’s first year after a championship. The Brooklyn playoff loss in 2014 was Toronto’s first playoff appearance in several years, and it was the first for the Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-led teams. Of course, Toronto was upset as a three seed. Now that Toronto is the defending champion, and the two seed, this upcoming series represents a bookends of sorts, a chance at redemption for a team that is already fully redeemed. Lowry has changed since 2014, but he has only improved. The Raptors have too. From that first series, though, we will always have this.
For the Nets, Donta Hall (ankle) and Chris Chiozza (groin) are both day-to-day. Jamal Cawford is out indefinitely with a hamstring injury. Otherwise, Michael Beasley, Taurean Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Nicolas Claxton, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant are out indefinitely and not with the team.
For the Raptors, OG Anunoby (knee) and Serge Ibaka (knee) have been held out of a few late-bubble games, but they are expected to play without limitation in the playoffs. It’s just been cautionary with them. Oshae Brissett (knee) is day-to-day, while Pat McCaw (knee) is out indefinitely and not with the team.
A lot of this will blend into some of the other sections, particularly the season series numbers coming below, but let’s start with the per-game numbers and then move to the takeaways.
It’s important to note that Brooklyn actually had a solid defense this year, at least before the bubble, with the tenth-best defensive rating in the league. And they accomplished that without employing a single elite defensive player. That was mostly as a result of scheme, which we’ll get into in far more detail in the scheme section. But suffice it to say that though Brooklyn’s individual defenders may be outmatched, the team defense could hold up fairly well.
The Nets didn’t run too much in transition, although they will push and look for an early available good shot, especially from deep.
Perhaps more important, though, are the differences between Brooklyn in the regular season and Brooklyn in the bubble. Though the Nets sported a superior record, the similar net rating shows that Brooklyn was perhaps not an improved team in the bubble. The offense was dynamite, but the defense bled points, and Toronto should be able to stymie Brooklyn’s offense — more on that in the matchup and style sections — while scoring fairly easy against Brooklyn’s once-solid but now-porous defense.
Brooklyn team scored a lot more points in the bubble partially by hitting its jumpers, but also by giving the ball to Caris LeVert and letting him run the show. LeVert scored 25.0 points per game in the bubble despite only shooting 25.8 percent from deep. He’s a crafty scorer and bumped his assist numbers to 6.7 while keeping his turnover numbers at 3.3. The Nets were particularly fantastic with LeVert, Chris Chiozza, Tyler Johnson, and Jarrett Allen on the court together in the bubble. The group gave the Nets real size in Allen and as much initiation and creation ability as the hobbled roster has to offer. They outscored opponents by 22 points in 23 minutes. That foursome used Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Rodion Kurucs, and Garrett Temple in the fifth slot. Expect the Nets to also use Joe Harris alongside that foursome to maximize shooting against Toronto.
Oh, and Harris shot 54.1 percent from deep in the bubble. So what drove bubble success for Brooklyn? The Nets pieced together some wacky groups, shot well, gave the ball to LeVert, and scored the heck out of the ball. It was good enough for a 5-3 record.
Season Series Numbers
These numbers, as with most of the data in this preview, are potentially meaningless. After all, the Nets will bring a dramatically different roster into the playoff series than it featured against Toronto in all four season series games. Out are Taurean Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, and of course Kyrie Irving. In are Johnson and a number of deep bench players who were with the team earlier in the year but got little time, like Chiozza.
Regardless, the season series happened, so we should discuss it. Here are the general numbers, first, in the season games.
There’s a lot to take away here, even though the numbers have the aforementioned astronomical caveat. For one, the Nets want to get up as many triples as possible; their 40 attempts per game in the four games against Toronto would have ranked third in the league over a full season, yet only slightly more than the 38.2 per game they actually launched. Getting up more triples than an opponent is a mathematical advantage, as Darryl Morey and company realized several years ago. It also, in the case of this series, is an advantage for the underdog, as the high-variance nature of bundles of triples can lead to fluky positive performances wherein the Nets hit 20 or more triples in a game.
Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the Raptors also launched a huge number of threes. They were sixth in the league in attempts per game, directly behind Brooklyn, and they attempted only 2.5 fewer per game than Brooklyn in the season series. Fluke resulting from high variance is less statistically likely if both teams play the same mathematical game.
If Brooklyn’s propensity for the long ball is the takeaway from the Nets, Toronto’s biggest number from the season series would be the huge number of turnovers the Nets committed. Toronto forces oodles of turnovers from opponents this year, the second-most in the league, at 16.8 per game. The Nets, on the other hand, forced only 12.8 turnovers per game, 28th in the league. So the turnover disparity in the season series is right in line with full season data from both teams, and if Toronto wins the turnover battle by nearly 10 every game, this series will be a sweep. The turnover win was the trigger for Toronto doubling Brooklyn’s fastbreak points in the season series. Brooklyn’s only chance is to force Toronto to play in the half-court. The Nets actually boasted a good fastbreak defense, at least before the bubble; we’ll see if this new Nets roster with a statistically worse fastbreak defense can hold Toronto below the 24.3 points scored per game in the season.
Another large element that can counterbalance turnovers is rebounding, but Brooklyn does not have a great rebounding team. Though the Nets won the rebound battle over the season series, the edge was slight, and those games included DeAndre Jordan. Toronto is a middling rebounding team, and punishing them on the glass is one way to take advantage of the champs. With Allen starting at center for Brooklyn, and no real size on the team beyond him, it’s likely the Raptors win the rebounding battle, too. Interestingly, Brooklyn’s rebounding percentage did drop in the bubble, though not dramatically. LeVert’s a good rebounder for his position. But if Toronto has 10-15 more possessions per game than Brooklyn from the glass and the turnover combined, this series will really be a sweep, shooting variance be damned.
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Fred VanVleet
SF: OG Anunoby
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol
PG: Caris LeVert
SG: Garrett Temple
SF: Joe Harris
PF: Rodions Kurucs
C: Jarrett Allen
Keep in mind, I’m really guessing here. LeVert, Harris, and Allen are the only certainties.Any of Johnson, Luwawu-Cabarrot, or Chris Chiozza could start, really, instead of Temple or Kurucs. But the group that led the team in minutes in the bubble is the above group, despite only appearing in three games together. This starting group also gives the most size for Brooklyn to throw at Siakam. Projected starter Kurucs only averaged 17.7 minutes per game in the two games against Toronto; that could double in this series.
The Nets have a real talent deficit, of course, against the Raptors. They need to fire up as many triples as possible to have a chance to win any game this series. This proposed starting group for Brooklyn puts the ball in the hands of the only real initiator while offering the best mix of shooting and defense. Chiozza starting could handicap the defense too much, and the Nets seem to like Johnson as a spark off the bench.
Of my projected starters, LeVert (1) and Kurucs (2) both missed games for Brooklyn, while VanVleet (1), Lowry (1), Siakam (1), and Gasol (3) all missed plenty of time for Toronto. So this matchup data is already tilted. Beyond that, keep in mind that shot allocation and ball possession will change for Brooklyn in the playoffs.
(First, some caveats with these numbers, taken from nba dot com. Matchup data is always tricky, especially considering the defender on shot attempts is defined by the data creator as which defender was closest to the shot when it occurred, not which defender started on the offensive player, or who was guarding him the longest. So that’s a problem, but I decided to include the field goal attempts – makes because it is available. But also because it does a fairly good job of showing which players had good season series against Brooklyn on the whole, even if makes against individual defenders are murkier. So be careful drawing too many conclusions out of that part of the data set. On the plus side, the number of possessions against is pretty accurate, and that’s the number I use most often in determining who guarded whom and how often.)
If it seems like VanVleet played brilliantly against any defender, it’s because he did. He averaged a team-high 26.7 points per game against Brooklyn, and his offensive rating was 116.1, second-best on the team. The Nets don’t have any particularly fearsome guard defenders or rim protectors, so expect VanVleet to have a big series if he forces the issue. That being said, the Nets don’t have any great wing defenders either, so really any Raptor could break out. Siakam could score 30 a game this series if the Raptors wanted him to.
Here are some notes about the matchups:
- Who the heck is going to guard Siakam? Kurucs? LeVert? Probably Kurucs, but I could conceivably see any of Brooklyn’s starting five on him, and I can’t imagine how any of them have a chance. Kurucs theoretically has the size to bother Siakam, but Toronto’s star is faster and stronger. Siakam has mostly struggled with creating his own offense in the bubble, relying a little bit more on his jumper than perhaps he should. That should end against Brooklyn. If Siakam doesn’t turn in a highly efficient series against Brooklyn, that would be a problem for Toronto — in in terms of winning this one series, but mostly just in terms of predicting Toronto’s success later in the playoffs against better teams.
- Toronto could probably win this whole series just by dumping the ball to Siakam in the post on every half-court offensive possession. The Nets have no answer. But because that would be bad practice for future series, expect Nick Nurse to try to get Siakam the ball on the move with creative and dynamic entries. Whether Siakam handles in the pick-and-roll, jets in all directions around off-ball screens, or simply runs the baseline and cuts at smart moments, Siakam will be moving more in the playoffs than in the regular season. Should be, at least. The Raptors won’t need it against Brooklyn, but catching on the move will really help Siakam save his third or fourth gear for the second line of the defense, which was how Siakam scored so efficiently at the rim in years before this one.
- It’s likely that the Nets use Harris against Anunoby. That’s what they did by and large in the regular season. That’s a good example of a team trying to hide its worst defender on the least involved offensive player from the other team. And Anunoby is Toronto’s least involved offensive player, but he is still quite able to fit into more direct actions. Anunoby averaged only 10.6 points per game this year on a lowly 14.2 percent usage rate, but the Raptors have shown at times in the bubble — such as when he scored 23 points against the Los Angeles Lakers — how comfortable they are slotting Anunoby into a featured role for a quarter at a time. The Raptors have used him quite a bit as a screener, and Harris will have trouble in any action that places him as the defender in ball screen actions. Otherwise, Anunoby has a huge strength advantage and could attack Harris in the post, and he will certainly get some paint touches as he attacks the rotating Nets’ defenders. Expect Anunoby to have a big game or two as Toronto tries to establish situational advantages.
- Jarrett Allen is quite slight for a center. Marc Gasol has been quite involved in the post in the bubble, and his post game is looking great. Nurse continues to push the point that he wants to see Gasol with more post touches and more shot attempts. Expect him to attack Allen here and there, particularly early on in some games. If Allen can’t contain Gasol, and he doesn’t hurt Toronto on the glass, and he can’t corral Toronto’s guards in ball screen actions, the Nets may be forced to play small at times. Although who they use in those situations is a question; my guess is that Kurucs will shift to center, which, I guess let’s see what happens. The Nets have a size disadvantage in this series, as well as a skill deficit. But Allen blocks a fair number of shots, and he could be the only difference between a solid defense and a layup line for VanVleet and Lowry. The Nets need him, but Gasol especially could make him unplayable. Tough spot there.
- Lowry, by the way, should dominate. It’s funny that I haven’t mentioned Lowry yet, as he’s Toronto’s most important player, but the Nets simply have no one to guard him. LeVert could try, as he has the size and speed to bother Lowry, but he loves to reach and gamble on steals. He can fall for fakes. The veteran trickster Lowry would saddle LeVert with tons of fouls. More likely Brooklyn turns instead to Temple, who is a savvy vet and will at least not fall for Lowry’s shenanigans (usually). But Temple is not fast enough to stay in front of Lowry, particularly in screening actions. If the Raptors want to hurt the Nets in the most painful way possible, it probably won’t be through VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, or Gasol, pleasurable though those moments will be. No, instead the Raptors will probably run hammer sets for Lowry in the corner, or else let him operate in the high pick-and-roll, where Lowry rains fire against drop defenses, which Brooklyn employed all year.
- I’ll get into this in much more depth in the style portion of this preview, but Lowry could have a whole lot of pull-ups available to him. The Nets may play a very dedicated drop defense, which they used all year to take away the roller and spot-up shooters around a pick-and-roll. Handlers scored easily against the Nets, though, and Lowry is a wonderful pull-up shooter, shooting 35.1 percent from three this year on such shots. Lowry most of all could have a big series. If Temple can’t bother Lowry’s shots from behind, and Allen stays low in the drop, Lowry could see his three-point attempts in double digits for the series.
Now the same data with Brooklyn on offense and Toronto defending.
A number of my takeaways will be assumptions and educated guesses, even if the matchup data listed above doesn’t bear them out. First of all, though LeVert had great success against VanVleet as his primary defender, don’t assume that will continue. VanVleet will likely remain LeVert’s primary defender, but the latter shot 60 percent from the field and 61.5 percent from deep in the four-game series. That’s not gonna happen again. Running through the film, VanVleet actually had a pretty poor defensive performance against LeVert. LeVert is a unique slitherer, using quick accelerations like a drummer on the high hat as punctuation to his at-times slow and indirect style. He can create space out of nothing. VanVleet is generally terrific at staying with those players. He was not in the regular season series when facing LeVert.
Focusing on individual matchups is almost missing the point, in a sense. The Raptors switch quite a bit one-through-four, while the Nets like to use a movement-heavy offense. All that can add up to chaos on the court, and expect some of Toronto’s most active defenders, like VanVleet, Lowry, Anunoby, Siakam (yeah, almost all of them) to switch three or even four times in individual possessions. VanVleet and Anunoby especially switch as weapons onto live action, always staying with the ball no matter who possesses it, so expect those two to spend a number of time defending initiators like LeVert and, at times, Chiozza.
- The LeVert matchup, to get a little deeper, is a really interesting one. VanVleet is the most natural matchup for LeVert, but the latter really likes to shoot over the top, and his body is so flexible that VanVleet’s tactic of getting into opponents legs may not deter LeVert, at least not always. LeVert has wonderful leg strength, but Toronto could attack him on the defensive end to tire him; will LeVert be accurate on his beloved midrange pull-ups after three games of Siakam and Anunoby hunting him for post-ups? LeVert wants to shoot over smaller defenders, and even when he’s off-balance he’s not uncomfortable. He’s a naturally east-west player, and VanVleet is usually terrific at keeping those players from bursting vertical, as VanVleet has such strong hips and hands. But LeVert’s weight always seems to be in multiple places at once, which is a skill that’s usually only true of superstar scorers, but LeVert also seems to possess. VanVleet should be able to make him uncomfortable, but if LeVert’s midrange jumper gets hot, he will be able to shoot over VanVleet with relative ease.
- In those situations, Anunoby may be the next best choice against LeVert. He’s much bigger, stronger, and longer than LeVert, but he should be reasonably able to stay with the Net and contest his pull-ups. Toronto’s primary motivation on defense will be to eliminate LeVert and make his initiation of the offense slow, messy, and full of problems. Anunoby should be able to do that, perhaps better than VanVleet. On the other hand, Anunoby isn’t as quick as VanVleet, and LeVert’s humming east-west movement could allow him to get free of Anunoby. It will be an important thing to watch, as both players will surely see time guarding LeVert. The final boss would probably be Siakam, who could likely erase LeVert with his unbelievable length and speed. When Siakam locks in on defense, he is one of the league’s best at eliminating opposing wings. Siakam most likely won’t be needed as a primary defender, but he will see time in switches, of course.
- To that point, the LeVert matchup will be a team job. Whether it’s VanVleet or Anunoby starting on him, you can be sure that multiple Raptors will be finishing the defensive possession with contests no matter where LeVert is. Gasol in particular will be spending a lot of time contesting him around the rim, and because Gasol doesn’t jump anyway, that should limit LeVert’s slimy and slippery fakes. LeVert is one of the premier shooters in the league from the short mid-range, with his frequency of attempts above the 90th percentile this year and last. When LeVert was on the court for Brooklyn this year, the amount of short mid-range attempts skyrocketed to 19.3 percent frequency from 13.5 percent with LeVert off. Gasol should do a good job of limiting LeVert there and forcing wild attempts.
- Beyond just Gasol, the Raptors do a wonderful job of knowing when to cheat off of their marks when they’re in non-threatening positions. Lowry and VanVleet in particular are wonderful at staying in the lane when their marks are clearing, and using that space to double or blitz opponents before recovering. LeVert — who already has a propensity for turnovers — could slink and slime his way into stationary defenders in the lane, which could play to Toronto’s strengths. The Raptors need to focus on LeVert, and it won’t be possible to stop him completely, but there’s so little creation elsewhere on Brooklyn’s roster that the Raptors can initiate their swarming, flying, rotating defense without fear of LeVert’s teammates beating them. Harris might hit a few one-dribble side-step triples, but other than that, the Raptors would be happy to let chaos reign when the Nets are on offense. It will result in a lot of transition attempts for the Raptors going the other way.
- The other element for Toronto’s usage of Anunoby is that Anunoby is probably best employed against Harris. Harris is a wonderful cutter around the arc, and he has a lot of size for a shooter. Anunoby can stay with him and really take away a lot of those looks, as well as switch onto more threatening ball-handlers when Brooklyn tries to get spicy and uses Harris as a screener in actions. Fortunately for Toronto, if Anunoby moves onto LeVert, any of Siakam, VanVleet, and Lowry are equally capable of checking Harris. In the season series, the Raptors used all four of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam (with Siakam slightly less than the others) equally on Harris, so expect that variability of the defense to continue into the playoffs. My guess is that Anunoby starts on Harris and VanVleet on LeVert, but that will change from game-to-game, let alone quarter-to-quarter. Anunoby will do a lot of switching.
- Lowry should probably start on Temple, who is Brooklyn’s least threatening offensive player. That allows Lowry to freestyle, which is his preferred and most threatening form of defense. Lowry will be an off-ball defensive weapon, switching, dropping to tag rollers, rebounding, and especially stepping in to take charges. Against a team that drives as much as Brooklyn, Lowry could take a dozen charges over the course of this series. Really, the only limiting element there is that Brooklyn has so few initiators beyond LeVert that there may be few Nets actually getting past Toronto’s perimeter defenders and reaching the paint.
- The only certainty on the defense end for Toronto is Gasol guarding Allen. Gasol should be able to swallow Allen’s limited offensive game while still helping quite a bit in the middle. Gasol especially will be important in challenging LeVert’s funky drives to the rim, and he should have no trouble doing that, especially as Allen is such a non-shooter. Allen is a great lob threat, but Toronto doesn’t succumb to that easily or let lob threats alter the backbone of their defense. The Raptors have a really athletic sideline defense, with Anunoby and Siakam especially capable of taking away lobs from the backside. Gasol will be trusted as a help defender first, Allen defender second in this one. If Allen short rolls and makes plays, so be it, and the Raptors can change when necessary.
- Gasol will also take a lot of charges in this one, as he always does when defending a non-shooting big.
First, let’s project who is in the rotation and who isn’t. Toronto probably won’t go 10 deep, so some of the names here won’t see time in the playoffs.
PG: Terence Davis
SG: Matt Thomas
SF: Norman Powell
PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C: Serge Ibaka
Honourable mention: Chris Boucher (Unfortunately, as well as Paul Watson Jr. and company have played in the bubble, it’s unlikely they actually make it into the playoff rotation.)
PG: Chris Chiozza
SG: Tyler Johnson
SF: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
PF: Justin Anderson
C: Rodion Kurucs? / Donta Hall / nobody, might just play Allen 48 minutes.
The Nets have far less talent than the Raptors on the bench. As a matter of fact, the Raptors probably have the six or seven most talented bench players in this series. I do really like Chiozza and Anderson! But they will be at a big disadvantage; both likely wouldn’t crack Toronto’s rotation. And you can see that reality when you look at how both teams have performed with a varying number of starters on the floor. Data here is taken from the wonderful pbpstats, and of course red is the Raptors and grey is the Nets.
Toronto was the best team in the league with one starter in the game, which we’ll call the Lowry effect. (Though that wasn’t always true of the Raptors this year, as it was often other starters, like Gasol, driving the success of one-starter groups, than Lowry, but we’ll call it the Lowry effect anyway because of historical precedent.) The Raptors were solid elsewhere, particularly with a full starting lineup or three starters; it’s important that Toronto’s transitional lineups were solid, which is mostly an effect created by the successes of Ibaka, Powell, and Davis. The Nets, on the other hand, basically improved the more starters were in the game, capping out just above neutral with a full starting lineup.
And that graph is over the full season, not specific to the bubble, when Brooklyn’s bench became even more flaccid. There’s just not enough talent. Tyler Johnson can get hot from range, sure, but the Raptors have the ability to take shots away from good shooters. Does Johnson have enough in the bag to punish the Raptors when they drive him off the line? Ditto for Luwawu-Cabarrot. Chiozza is fun and solid, and he plays like VanVleet but worse in every way except maybe passing. Defensively, he will be a target, unlike VanVleet, who I would put on the First Team All-Defense roster. Chiozza is strong, but we’ll see if he stands up in the post against bigger Raptors who get deep and dynamic positions.
Justin Anderson is wonderful, of course. He has a great mix of size, strength, and solid handle to boot, and his jumper can catch fire at times. Being left-handed also helps him. But the Raptors will have time to game-plan for everyone, and I don’t expect Anderson to hurt Toronto too much. Of course there’s the Raptors 905 connection, as he played for Toronto’s G League franchise earlier this year. Though there are all sorts of differences, Anderson shares at least a patient smoothness with Paul Watson Jr. He fits in. Anderson will have a moment or two this series where he forces Raps fans to throw something across the room, though, so be ready for that.
Toronto’s bench has been fun at times throughout the season and in the bubble, but I expect Nurse to shorten it. It’s likely that only Powell, Ibaka, and Hollis-Jefferson see time in every game. This series should be a good warm-up for Powell and Ibaka, both of whom have started to round into form towards the end of the seeding games. Ibaka should have tons of open mid-range jumpers as a result of Brooklyn’s schemes, and he’s automatic in those cases. He hurts centers to want to be in the paint. And Allen, who is a good shot-blocker but not the best rim protector on account of his slim frame, will be a good test for Powell; will Powell get into Allen’s body and use his length to get the ball on the rim, or will he avoid contact and attempt difficult but acrobatic attempts? This year he’s gone more for the former, which would stand him in good stead in this series.
Terence Davis will get a chance, but he’s looked like a rookie on the defensive end in the bubble, seeming to think instead of react at times. He started questioning his jumper. He said that the bubble saw some “really, really lows” for him, and his game showed it. But his confidence returned in full in the final bubble game against the Nuggets. If he plays without confidence in the playoffs, his leash will be non-existent. Even at his best, he still makes defensive mistakes. Nurse could try Thomas as a lead handler. Thomas has a game-breaking pull-up jumper, and he has a serviceable pick-and-roll game with a solid pocket bounce pass to the roller. Boucher is a terrific shot blocker, and his rebounding has been fantastic in the bubble. His shot-making has also been a big injection in the bubble. He’ll get a chance at some point in the series, and if he plays as well as he did in the bubble, he may continue to see time. Boucher is the type of guy who could dominate the Nets and put up six points, two blocks, and a steal in the span of two minutes. Of everyone on the cusp of rotation minutes before the bubble, Boucher probably made the strongest case to alter his status.
At times, Powell and Ibaka can take over games. Both will likely have one game of 20 points or more scored. Possibly more than one. Will that be true of any bench player for the Nets? Perhaps Johnson. As elsewhere, Toronto has a big advantage here.
Offensive and Defensive Styles
The content in this section has, of course, leaked into virtually every other section of the preview. I’m not going to get too in-depth here (who am I kidding, of course I am). First let’s start by breaking down the quantity and quality of different types of plays for both teams.
(This data is from nba.com’s publicly available data, which does not include passes away from plays. This limits the usefulness of data. For example, Toronto’s post-ups are most threatening because if Siakam or Gasol achieves deep position, they draw help and kick the ball to a waiting shooter. Though the shot is created through the post-up, this data only includes it in the spot-up category. That’s why Toronto’s post-up and pick-and-roll numbers are so low, because the real meat of those possessions – hitting perimeter shooters after the ball touches the paint – isn’t included in the data.)
The Nets have a decided offensive style. They run a whole lot of pick-and-roll, which they love to finish with the handler, or else force the basketball to hit the paint and then kick to waiting shooters. As to that, the Nets averaged the third-most drives among all teams, at 53.7 per game. They also take the fifth-most pull-up triples per game in the league, at 13.0, though those attempts dropped to 9.8 per game in the bubble. But having a steady dose of pull-up triples is another outcome of having a guard handling in the pick-and-roll quite often. Unfortunately for the Nets, as a team, they only shot 30.2 percent on pull-up threes this year. But the Nets’ offensive style isn’t meant to produce pull-up triples or drives, at least not as the primary means of scoring. The point is to produce high-quality catch-and-shoot threes, and the Nets were successful, ranking seventh in the league in catch-and-shoot attempts per game. And on those attempts, the Nets are a little more deadly.
Chiozza and Harris were both 90-ish-percentile spot-up threats this year, so any pick-and-roll ending with them shooting off the catch is Brooklyn’s ideal offensive outcome. Toronto has to be extremely careful not to let them find stationary triples. Both are capable one-dribble side-step shooters, so Toronto’s closeouts have to be pointed with immediate recoveries to take away the initial shot and the follow-up shot. If the Raptors turn Chiozza and Harris into drivers, that would be a big win. Chiozza is a plus-passer, so if he hurts Toronto by creating seams against a rotating defense, adjustments will have to be made.
But as for the pick-and-roll, Brooklyn’s favoured offensive set, the Nets have no league-leading initiators. LeVert was a 44.4th percentile finisher in the pick-and-roll, which is the highest among players Brooklyn took to Orlando. LeVert will get lots of chances, but his scattershot pull-up three-point shooting, helter skelter shot selection, and propensity for turnovers contribute to his poor statistical profile as a pick-and-roll handler. As to the shot selection, he loves the short mid-range, and Toronto loves to give it up. That’s the sweet spot for both teams’ preferred styles, and the war of the series will often be fought in the paint outside of the restricted area when Toronto’s on defense. The 6-12 foot range. If LeVert is efficient there, that’s a good sign for Brooklyn.
Brooklyn actually has no great isolation players, at least not statistically, on the roster in the bubble. LeVert finished the season scoring 0.76 points per isolation possession, good for 26.6th percentile league-wide. That’s not great. Furthermore, they attempted only 0.5 post-ups per game, hilariously last in the league. The Nets play to their strengths, and they do not stray. They are well-coached by Jacque Vaughn. However, after taking over for Kenny Atkinson midway through the year, Vaughn has added a little more variety in the offense, allowing a few players some post touches, like Allen or LeVert. They’re usually used as initiating sets for outside attacks, rather than direct post-ups for scores, but variety is good. The Nets are still one of the most pick-and-roll-heavy teams in the league, but a little less so under Vaughn. But Toronto forces teams away from their strengths, so if Brooklyn is forced into some static isolations or post-ups, it will be a hinge of the series to see which, if any, players rise to the occasion.
Toronto is much more versatile offensively, though there are plenty of similarities. Both teams try to run in transition and launch a lot of triples. That seems true of all NBA teams in this day and age, but it’s especially true of Brooklyn and Toronto. The Raps run a little more in transition, and the Nets throw up a few more threes, but call it even. In other areas, though, the Raptors are willing to sacrifice the mathematically correct shot for variance in style.
Often — not all the time, but way more than Brooklyn, for whom this isn’t true at all — Toronto’s personnel determines their style, which seems like a truism, but isn’t actually true of a lot of NBA teams. When Lowry or VanVleet is in the game, the team runs more pick-and-roll. When Powell is in the game, the team runs a lot in transition and shots a lot of catch-and-shoot jumpers. When Gasol is in the game, the team cuts more often, or at least scores more often off of those cuts. When Hollis-Jefferson is in the game, the team has infinitely more post-up, face-up, jab-step, spinning, fading, pumping, re-spinning, fadeaway jumpers.
Siakam is a good microcosm for Toronto’s offensive style of play, as he is at minimum proficient in every set, whether running the pick-and-roll, screening in the pick-and-roll (either short rolling, hard rolling, or popping), using off-ball screens, hitting spot-up jumpers, cutting, posting-up, or just plain isolating. The Raptors, meanwhile, do plenty of all the above, but they aren’t tops in the league at any one thing. That does make them harder to guard, as Toronto does not have one style to which it is subservient. The Raptors are happy to bend the offense to fit the situation, and the Nets will have lots of weaknesses. Expect to see lots of pick-and-rolls, until the Nets prove they can stop them, but the Raptors will have plans B-E ready to go.
Brooklyn’s defensive scheme was fairly stringent under Atkinson, though that changed when Vaughn took over. Brooklyn had a great transition defense (top-five), or at least it did before the bubble. They also proved solid at contesting isolation plays, setting a top-six mark in the league. Like I said, they’re well-coached. One change that Vaughn did institute is that Allen switches more often onto ball-handlers. Allen is not a wonderful defender on the perimeter, so if Lowry or VanVleet continue to blow past him, the Nets know that the drop is a solid base and may use it quite a bit. It’s hard to know what to expect, as Vaughn has only coached Brooklyn for 10 games, including the eight in the bubble. The Nets may play the drop, or they may switch more often, as they did in the bubble.
If the Nets do commit to a standard drop defense, either by beginning in it or falling back to it later, the goal would be for Allen to play below the level of the ball screen and goad the ball-handler into a mid-range pull-up. The success of that scheme throughout the year is also reflected in a few stats about Brooklyn’s defense; the team allowed the second-most points per possession against opponents’ pick-and-rolls that were finished by the handler, at 0.93. The Nets also allowed the third-most possessions to be finished by the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Both of which combined mean that Brooklyn did a fairly poor job of corralling the handler with the drop coverage. But that was on purpose. The Nets allowed opposing pick-and-roll handlers to succeed so as to take away the rollers, allowing the fourth-lowest points per possession to rollers in the league. And because rollers finish pick-and-rolls much more efficiently than handlers, that seems like a good tradeoff. That helps explain how Brooklyn had an above-average defense with so few above-average defenders. The Nets were also a top-eight defense in taking away both quantity and quality of opponents’ spot-up shots.
If the drop does happen, it means Toronto’s guards will have a buffet of pull-up shots. Lowry could score a million points.
Toronto’s defense is very different. Though the Nets are dipping their toes in the waters of defensive diversity, the Raptors are the lifeguards in these here parts. They are happy to blitz stars, and LeVert will likely receive much of that treatment. He hasn’t always held up in those situations. Toronto also switches at will, plays plenty of zone defense, and lets help defenders play extremely aggressively in passing lanes, trusting that rotations will be on-point and on-target. It works, and the Raptors force countless turnovers. If the Nets play sloppy, Toronto could have a field day in transition. In every area that Brooklyn excelled this year, defensively, Toronto was better in virtually all of them. Toronto’s defensive schemes under Nurse have been revolutionary in the NBA, and Brooklyn will be hard-pressed to find seams, despite the high-octane showing in the bubble.
The fact of the matter is that Toronto has a better half-court offense, a much better transition offense, and a dramatically better half-court defense.
A lot of people are going to be saying Raps in five because of variance. That’s crazy. Toronto shoots almost as many threes as the Nets, has better shooters, and is better in every other way. LeVert, of course, is wonderful, but Toronto has so many defenders to throw his way. This series is going to be very different from 2014. Raps in four.