Game 1: Hopes for the Remainder of the Series

In N.B.A. Basketball by Brock Bourgase

Since the Toronto Raptors have made the playoffs after a six year drought, fans want them to do well so a lacklustre fourth quarter and a copious moments that can be most optimistically linked to inexperience was frustrating. It’s not that beating the Brooklyn Nets in a playoff series is an impossible dream but that there is a way the series must unfold for Toronto to win whereas other storylines may better suit Brooklyn.

“Boo! That’s not fair!”

Scores of partisans at the Air Canada Centre felt that Ken Mauer, Ed Malloy and Brian Forte perpetrated an injustice against their team. The officiating was not perfect (Paul Pierce appeared to take three steps to carry the ball to the hoop, Jonas Valančiūnas blocked Kevin Garnett but was called for a foul and the Nets apparently only committed a single foul during the final sixteen minutes after eighteen fouls in the first two thirds of the game), it did not determine the game. The Raptors can do more to use officiating to their advantage.

Play Aggressively: Shooting fouls are related to the location of the ball on the court and if a team does not create penetration with the dribble or ball movement, there will not be many fouls called. Adopting a more aggressive strategy should enable the Raptors to go to the line more frequently in Game 2. Free throws could be another method for DeMar DeRozan to score if he has trouble getting into the paint again.

Stay in the Game: Some Toronto fouls were an example of poor judgment, for example fouling a player late and conceding a three point play or wrapping hands around an opponent while fighting for position. When Ross was removed after two early fouls, it really hurt Toronto’s spacing. The second-year player must keep his value to the team in perspective and understand when it is permissible not to commit a foul.

“I told you that Paul Pierce is a killer!”

N.B.A. fans and experts have declared that the experience of the Nets will invariably win. The disparity in playoff games played is certainly an advantage but it is not the only factor in this series. There are concrete things that any team can attempt to change the narrative of a playoff series and the Raptors – especially DeRozan – must take control of their fate. A lot went well (rebounding inside, Kyle Lowry’s determination, the second unit’s ability to push tempo) so addressing some little things might make a big difference.

Settle the Rotation

A team’s rotation is a crucial component of their identity and there needs to be common understanding about who will do what at certain points in the game. Most teams shrink their rotation by one or two players in the postseason because it becomes easier to identify and communicate the roles for eight players instead of ten. Toronto played everyone who dressed for Game 1 and this did not optimize the performance of every player.

Paul Pierce: Toronto needs to decide how they will deal with Pierce in the power forward spot because it has been a tremendous mismatch in the last two games that they have contested against Brooklyn. The games were close but down the stretch Pierce was able to score some critical baskets because he drove past a slower forward like Patrick Patterson who could not keep up …

… or escaped from a hedging defender such as Amir Johnson for an open three-point shot.

Obviously, Pierce will remain a tough cover because he can do so many things but he is lighting up Johnson and Patterson. Terrence Ross effectively guarded Joe Johnson throughout the season (although, three of these games were before the Nets adopted their smaller line-up) but his length and speed may necessitate that he guard Pierce, if he can stay in the game. A smaller rotation will demand that DeMar DeRozan and Grevis Vasquez contribute more at the defensive end, against Shaun Livingston and Johnson, which they did not do in Game 1.

Attack the Mismatch: If Dwane Casey elects not to play a smaller rotation (Lowry-Vasquez-DeRozan-Ross-Valančiūnas), he needs to go at Pierce or Andray Blatche in the paint. Pierce still has quick hands but he does not desire to bang with a larger player. A quick post entry – during the early offense phase or after drawing the other defenders with another action – will expose that Pierce often gives up good post position. Below, Patterson runs to the rim in transition and receives a bounce pass after Lowry engages Garnett and Marcus Thornton in a ball screen.

If the ball goes into Pierce’s man, Brooklyn will help so there are opportunities for the two bigs to play as a tandem and make a post-to-post pass or crash the boards hard. Valančiūnas scored the Raptors first eight points of the game. On this play, as Johnson posted up, Valančiūnas dove from the high post and was rewarded with a putback basket due to defensive confusion.

Simply allowing Pierce to exploit the mismatch on his terms only is not good enough.

Move the Ball

Involve All Five Players: Too many Toronto sets involved a high screen and roll and three stationary players. It’s too easy to blitz the ballhandler if the other players are not in motion. There are plays in the Raptors’ repertoire that comprise multiple actions. These sets feature the team’s athleticism and punish teams that over-help. Earlier in the season, the Raptors scored on a side out after setting a backscreen, pindown and staggered double screen on the same play. When the ball got to Ross, two defenders went to him and he made a pocket pass to Valančiūnas inside.

Make Extra Passes: The previous play was also a good example of shooters cutting behind help defenders along the baseline, exposing slow close outs. Making the extra pass and getting the ball into the corner should give Toronto some good looks. A second unit that features Patterson as the only big might showcase his shooting and ability to stretch the defense.

The team has trouble when the guards halted a drive to the basket and gave the ball to the posts in an awkward position. If DeRozan is not going to attack as much as he did during the regular season, passing out of the double-team and making an extra pass to a shooter is a satisfactory alternative.

Adjusting to Brooklyn’s Tactics

DeMar DeRozan: The Nets committed to denying DeRozan the ball and closing the paint when he caught the ball. When DeRozan was younger, the Raptors had success giving him the ball when he was on the move, for example after both posts had set a double screen. He could cut backdoor more, especially on the baseline. Toronto’s “Push” set – a Horns variation – isolated DeRozan with his defender and created scoring chances for his teammates during Saturday’s game. Since the floor was well-spacing, nobody had to force anything and Vasquez hit a three-pointer after a D.H.O. from Tyler Hansbrough.

It’s up to DeRozan to adopt a bellicose mindset. You can’t always draw out the hedge and shoot over it, like he did during a memorable moment on Drake Night in January.

Employ a Mix of Screens: Guarding the ball screen cannot become a predictable exercise for Brooklyn. Rejecting the screen, using the screen twice, changing the angle of the screen and slipping the screen are all ways that Toronto can exploit any lethargy on the part of Garnett-Pierce-Blatche-Plumlee when they show on a ball screen. Raptors guards must do their part by keeping the dribble alive and attacking. Earlier in the season, Vasquez uses a Johnson screen twice before rejecting it and firing a pass to Johnson rolling to the hoop. The efficiency of the screen and roll game is determined by how all five offensive players react to the defense, not the initial all screen.


Stop Over-Helping: Every situation does not demand that somebody provide help. As Chuck Daly said, “It’s not the help that gets you in trouble; it’s the recovery.” Brooklyn’s Dribble Drive offense works because they are ballhandlers who can use their speed or size to get to the hoop and proficient shooters who can spread the floor. If the Raptors are helping (then running around to recover) too much, the Nets will have many open three-point shots.

Below, Mason Plumlee drives away from the basket and John Salmons steps up to help (?!?). Johnson is now open but DeRozan does not immediately go to him and leaves himself vulnerable for Plumlee to screen him in. One pass later and Johnson buries a three.

Anticipate the Next Play: Help defense does not simply entail playing in the 2.9 spot. Those players away from the ball must be engaged and rotate to the most dangerous player (which is a combination of ability and likelihood to get the ball). Teams should discuss what type of shots they feel comfortable allowing and hopefully the Raptors have decided that Pierce will not be the one who beats them. Slow help and a late rotation meant that nobody was in Pierce’s face when he made this three-point shot in March’s game.

The three that broke Game 1 open was made when Deron Williams and Johnson ran a guard-to-guard screen (something that the Raptors could also do for Lowry and DeRozan) and Patterson plants himself on the elbow. Garnett sets a hammer screen and Patterson cannot close out to Pierce in time.