After two games, patterns are emerging in the first-round playoff series between the Nets and the Toronto Raptors. The teams are tied at one victory each, but so far it is the Nets who have forced the Raptors to make adjustments.
The Raptors had been hoping to push the pace and use their athleticism to overwhelm the older, slower Nets in the open court. But through two games the Raptors have not relied on high-flying fast breaks, but the steady hand of their slowest guard, the backup point man Greivis Vasquez.
Vasquez had eight assists in 25 minutes in Game 2 and figures to get more playing time alongside the starting point guard Kyle Lowry. Vasquez’s extra minutes will probably come at the expense of the starting off guard Terrence Ross, 23, who appeared to be overwhelmed in his first two playoff games. Ross has contributed more turnovers than made shots, and his slight stature makes him an enticing post-up target for the bigger Nets guards.
Ross is mostly a catch-and-shoot scorer capable of tremendous fast-break finishes. His dunk over Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried was voted the dunk of the year on NBA.com. By contrast, Vasquez has dunked about as often Nets Coach Jason Kidd has this season, but he knows how to use his 6-foot-6 frame. In the pick-and-roll, Vasquez’s size allows him to peer over the Nets’ coverage and zip passes to the open man.
Vasquez is not particularly fast, but he expertly marshals what quickness he has to set up pick-and-rolls, and his feel for passing is world class. This isn’t news to the Nets. As a starter for the New Orleans Hornets last season, Vasquez racked up the most total assists in the N.B.A.
Raptors Coach Dwane Casey cannot afford any time without either Vasquez or Lowry on the court, but going forward he may try to play them together more. Pairing his best two playmakers would put additional pressure on the Nets to defend more than one pick-and-roll.
Vasquez’s impact goes beyond assists. A better-run pick-and-roll also means more drives to the rim, which forces the Nets into help rotations, which in turn frees up the Raptors’ aggressive big men to go for offensive rebounds. In Game 2, the Raptors handily outrebounded the Nets, grabbing 50 percent of available misses.
“We got to do something to keep them off the boards,” Nets guard Deron Williams said. “We’ve talked about it all season. That’s been a plague for us.”
The Raptors need those extra possessions to make up for all their turnovers. The Nets are third-best in the league at forcing turnovers, and the Raptors’ shoddy ball-handling has played into their hands going into Game 3 in Brooklyn on Friday.
Despite surrendering 36 points in the fourth quarter — a total inflated by free throws down the stretch — the Nets are unlikely to alter their defensive strategy.
The 30-point performance by the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan needs to be put in context. DeRozan came to life in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 in the period after scoring just 14 in all of Game 1. But 9 of his 17 points came at the free-throw line and were not the result of his relentlessly attacking the rim. The Nets fouled DeRozan on three consecutive jump shots, breaking a cardinal rule of defense, before DeRozan iced the game with six free throws in the last 20 seconds. It is a great sign for the Raptors that DeRozan settled into his jump shot, but he also coughed up the ball six times and still does not look comfortable driving against the Nets’ defense.
DeRozan will need to be productive for the Raptors to have a chance, because on the other end he has no answer for Joe Johnson’s strength and guile. Smooth as can be, Johnson spent the first two games calmly bullying his way into the paint from the left wing, forcing double teams and eventually compelling the Raptors to play the seldom-used forward Landry Fields in an effort to slow him.
It worked in Game 2, as Fields forced a crucial deflection near the end of the fourth quarter. But over all, the Nets’ offense is humming along. Now, if they could only get some 3-pointers to drop.
The most reliable bellwether of the Nets’ offense is how many open 3-pointers they generate for their power forwards. When Paul Pierce and Mirza Teletovic are left unguarded, it is a sign that the defense is scrambling to deal with the Nets’ practice of spreading the court around one big man inside. By this measure, the Nets have been excellent. Teletovic and Pierce have combined to shoot 18 wide-open 3-pointers through two games. The problem is, they made only five of them.
Pierce was 0 for 6 from long range in Game 2. But Kidd said: “He had some great looks. It’s basketball: Sometimes they go in; sometimes they don’t.”
The Nets sacrifice rebounding to keep their best shooters on the court and maintain maximum defensive flexibility. In Game 2, their gamble caught up to them.
Kidd and the Nets know they missed a chance to take both games in Toronto, but they also have plenty of evidence that their approach is working.
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