A rare Game 1 victory for the Toronto Raptors was an even rarer occasion for the 2019-20 Brooklyn Nets. Their 73rd game and 38th loss of the season, a 134-110 victory for the defending champs, was the first game all season in which the Nets never held a lead.
The Raptors had the league's best defense (by a healthy margin) in the seeding games and it began the postseason by putting the clamps on the Nets over the first six minutes. After ranking seventh offensively in the restart, Brooklyn scored just two points on its first eight possessions and just six on its first 13 times down the floor.
But eventually, the Nets' offense was able to find good shots off ball movement. And behind the passing of Caris LeVert (career-high 15 assists) and the shooting of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (26 points on 9-for-13 from the field), the Nets scored rather efficiently over the next 36 minutes.
That wasn't enough, because the Raptors built a 33-point lead in the second quarter and held off the Nets in the fourth by shredding a Brooklyn defense that ranked 10th in the regular season (though just 18th in the restart). The defending champs' 134 points on 101 possessions on Monday was their fourth-most efficient performance of the season and more efficient than any of their 24 games in last year's playoffs.
15 -- Number of 3-pointers Fred VanVleet either made (8) or assisted on (7).
In one sense, the Raptors' title defense began the same way last year's title run concluded. More than a year later, Fred VanVleet remains on fire.
VanVleet ended last year's postseason by shooting 30-for-57 (53%) from 3-point range over the last nine playoff games. He kicked off this postseason by going 8-for-10 from beyond the arc as the Raptors tied their franchise record (set earlier this season against Washington) with 22 3-pointers.
But VanVleet wasn't just draining open jumpers. He was also creating them. He dished out 11 assists (his career playoff high), with seven of those dimes coming on 3-pointers from his teammates. Two of the Raptors' 22 3-pointers came in garbage time (the final 3:02), so VanVleet made or assisted on 15 of the champs' 20 non-garbage-time 3-pointers.
After taking just one shot (a transition layup) through the first 16 minutes of the game, VanVleet got going midway through the second quarter. VanVleet shot just 32.7% on pull-up 3-pointers this season, a mark that ranked 41st among 64 players who attempted at least 100. But he's probably not aware of that stat, and he was able to let it fly when the Nets gave him just enough space.
"Whether it's true or not, I feel I can get my shot off at any time," Mr. Bet On Yourself said afterward, "especially the way that defenses are playing me."
His first two 3-pointers and then another in the third quarter were out of the Damian Lillard playbook ...
Play 1: Serge Ibaka sets a high screen on the right side of the floor for VanVleet. Though it's set far from the basket, Garrett Temple tries to go over it. Rodions Kurucs initially jumps above the 3-point line, but with no help on Ibaka's roll (because there's no Toronto shooter in the right corner), Kurucs retreats and VanVleet steps into a long 3.
Play 2: On a sideline out-of-bounds play, the Raptors run a "Spain" pick-and-roll, with Marc Gasol (who's from Spain) setting a ball-screen for VanVleet and Kyle Lowry setting a back-screen on Jarrett Allen (guarding Gasol). Allen is focused on Lowry behind him and Tyler Johnson goes under the Gasol screen, giving VanVleet space to launch.
Play 3: With Pascal Siakam setting a ball-screen for VanVleet, LeVert seems to be expecting a switch. But Luwawu-Cabarrot doesn't step up in time, and VanVleet drains another pull-up.
"Freddie hit 'em on some unders," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said afterward. "We set some ball screens and they were going under. Freddie's pretty good at stopping right behind those and shooting or on the other side."
One of VanVleet's own 3-pointers and two of his 3-point assists (one, two) also came in transition. The Raptors are at their best in the open court and their 19 fast break points were right at their league-best, regular-season average.
But VanVleet also created some open looks with dribble penetration in Toronto's half-court offense. VanVleet ranked 18th in the league with 14.3 drives per game, but the 37.1% he shot on drives was the second worst mark among 70 players with at least 200 field goal attempts off drives. Appropriately, among the 113 players who averaged at least five drives a game in 30 games or more, VanVleet was the most likely to pass on those drives, doing so 57% of the time.
Play 1. An early attack against Chris Chiozza doesn't get VanVleet to the rim, but it draws the attention of Allen, leaving Ibaka wide open at the top of the arc.
Play 2. After a make, VanVleet pushes up the floor, beats LeVert off the dribble, and again draws help from Allen. When he gets to the other side of the paint, Gasol has arrived for another wide-open 3.
Play 3. The Raptors run the same out-of-bounds, "Spain" pick-and-roll play as above, though Lowry abandons the paint before setting the back-screen. Luwawu successfully is ready to make the switch onto VanVleet this time and he then beats VanVleet to the spot on an iso drive. Jeremiah Martin is in position to deny OG Anunoby in the left corner, but Anunoby shakes Martin, relocates to the wing, and drains a quick-release 3.
The Nets have generally been good at defending the 3-point line; They were one of two teams that ranked in the top 10 in both opponent 3-point percentage (35.0%, ninth) and the (lowest) percentage of opponent shots that came from 3-point range (37%, 10th). But Allen is always going be looking to protect the rim, so the Raptors' centers (3-for-8 from 3 on Monday) should continue to see open looks from the perimeter off paint attacks from the guards and wings.
"I felt like I was collapsing and drawing the defense," VanVleet said, "and guys were stepping up and making the shots. I just continued to put pressure on the defense and then I was able to shake free for a couple of 3s. Once a few of those went in, I knew it was going to be a big night for me.
Nets' solid ATO in Game 1
After the Nets scored just once on their first eight possessions, they got one of their easiest baskets of the night, a pick-and-roll lob from LeVert to Allen off an out-of-timeout play.
A key here is keeping Lowry occupied by putting Joe Harris on the move. Harris initially sets a pin-down for Allen into the pick-and-roll, and then curls out to the left wing. Lowry chooses to stay attached to the shooter (now 23-for-42 from 3-point range in the bubble) rather than provide help on Allen's roll to the rim.
Quote to know
VanVleet's "Whether it's true or not..." declaration above was the quote of the day, but Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said something interesting before the game in regard to dealing with the Toronto defense, arguably the best in the league in rotating out of two-to-the-ball situations. Vaughn said that Nets would sometimes need to settle for "good" shots instead of always seeking "great" looks.
"We tend to talk about 'good to great,'" he said, "but sometimes, they don't allow you to get great. They have a chance to recover. And sometimes good is going to be good enough."
Brooklyn can head into Game 2 on Wednesday afternoon (1:30 ET, NBA TV) believing that the Raptors aren't going to shoot 50% on 3-pointers or 97% from the free throw line again. But the Raptors can also expect sharper offensive performances from Lowry and Siakam, who combined to shoot 7-for-27 from the field on Monday.
We've already seen tinkering on the other end of the floor. Late in the first half of Game 1, the Nets started setting screens for LeVert higher (near the midcourt line) to give him a little more room to operate. The Raptors were more aggressive in double-teaming the Nets' bubble star in the second half, and Brooklyn may need to find somebody to be LeVert's escape valve in those situations, because Allen is not Draymond Green or Boris Diaw in regard to catching the ball in open space and acting as a 4-on-3 playmaker.
On one fourth-quarter possession, Allen was running toward the next action (a screen for Harris) unaware that LeVert needed his help in dealing with the double ...
After the initial ugliness on the Nets' end of the floor, Game 1 turned into a fun battle between Brooklyn's drive-and-kick game and Toronto's rotations. We can expect more of the same in Game 2, with LeVert seeing a ton of attention and other guys needing to step up and make plays.
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