The first series to kick off this postseason will also be one of the least-anticipated. The 3-6 matchup of the Raptors and Nets features two teams that really turned it on after the loss of supposedly key pieces. Rudy Gay was traded from Toronto to Sacramento in exchange for several players, and Brooklyn lost Brook Lopez to injury. These “losses” ended up propelling each team out of their respective early season malaises by allowing their coaches to make more synergistic rotation choices. Since the start of 2014 Toronto is 34-19; Brooklyn is 34-17.
Brooklyn took off after the Lopez injury thanks to a move to goofy small-ball units with one big and four rangy wings. Both the wing rotation and the bigs have changed as injuries have dictated, but the philosophies remained the same. Jason Kidd lacked a reliable offensive centerpiece on the perimeter with the declines experienced by the entire wing corp, so he turned to a four-out system where everyone could pass and cut to open up easier shots. Anyone can get in on the fun – there’s one play they liked to run toward the end of the season in which Deron Williams would bring the ball up, pass it to Andrei Kirilenko at the top of the key or on the left wing, then cut in toward the basket. If that cut didn’t yield anything, Kirilenko could target any one of the other players who were running a series of simultaneous cuts. Brooklyn also does something similar with Kevin Garnett taking AK47’s place and setting up at the elbow.
All of this is intended to disguise where the action is being initiated from and to utilize the strong passing and shooting available to cover for the fact that this team lacks the athletic ability to blow by opponents and create havoc barreling toward the rim. Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson could physically overpower their defenders in the past, but that’s no longer a sustainable offensive strategy for either, and Williams lacks the burst he once had.
The Raptors will attempt to limit the effectiveness of Brooklyn’s pass and cut system by staying close to shooters beyond the 3-point line and by controlling the glass. Toronto has been pretty good at hauling in rebounds all season, with big men Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson both cleaning up misses at a solid rate. This is one area where the Nets’ small-ball ways have really hurt – they are second to last in the league in rebound rate, and the effect is seen on both ends of the floor.
Toronto will live with the damage on long jumpers as long as they don’t give up the extra point or get battered in the paint. The Brooklyn starters likely won’t cause too much trouble at the rim, but the bench has the athleticism to be more of a nuisance there with Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee in the middle. Fortunately for the Raptors, Kidd very rarely plays more than one big at a time. He will run out one of the centers with Mirza Teletovic, but this is because Teletovic’s shooting leaves the paint open – he’s not a huge threat in the paint.
Coach Dwane Casey has instilled solid defensive principles in his team, and Brooklyn will have to work hard to overcome them in this series. Some playing time adjustments (which Kidd claims are not happening) or new tactics may tilt the advantage more in the Nets’ favor, but Chuck Hayes is always sitting on the bench for Toronto if KG and company start to prove too frisky.
The Raptors’ offense has the benefit of youth that their opponents lack, and it has helped them run a more standard pick and roll based attack, led by standouts Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Of the two, DeRozan is a lot more likely to isolate and take a long jumper, but his passing and attacking have improved greatly, which is good news for the Raps – he hits over 70% of his shots when he gets to the rim.
Lowry is a strong pick and roll guard who can use his combination of speed and shooting to create big problems for the defense. If he happens to be running the play with Amir Johnson (or his backup, Patrick Patterson) he has the benefit of the screener also being a terrific midrange shooter, opening up a ton of possibilities for the defense to contend with. Add in some standard off-ball actions to open up shooters, and this is a fairly dangerous offensive team.
Terrence Ross has feasted on opportunities created by running off screens along the baseline or through the paint while the main action is occupying the defense. Several of the other main contributors are good shooters as well, making defenses pay for helping. If they need to go inside, Valanciunas is a decent option on the block and is a good finisher as a roll man.
Brooklyn’s defense relies on their lone big man to hedge briefly on the ballhandler in pick and roll situations before retreating back to his man. The perimeter guys are often left to deal with their matchups on their own, while hoping to swipe passes if possible and help out when needed. For a team featuring this many wings at the same time one might expect more switching, but the Nets really only do that in the most dire situations, like when someone needs to leave his man to close out on a shooter.
They give up a fairly high number of 3-point attempts, and against the Raptors that could become problematic. Both teams rely on threes to keep their offenses humming, but only Toronto makes it a point to cut down on their opponent’s chances as well. Adding back KG and increasing Kirilenko’s role should help the defense out, especially given the reliance on each player handling his own matchup, but it may not do a lot to curtail the shooting opportunities.
Brooklyn semi-tanked its way into this matchup to avoid the Chicago Bulls, but it’s not entirely clear why everyone would rather play the Raptors. On the year they are in the top 10 in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and that includes the beginning of the season, when they languished with Gay in a prominent role. Brooklyn has played very inspired ball in the second half, but Toronto has homecourt advantage (and Drake!) on their side. They should be considered the favorites to advance to a likely matchup with Miami in the 2nd round.