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Nets vs. Raptors: Game 1 NBA Playoffs Preview

Before the Brooklyn Nets began their eight-game seeding round schedule on the NBA Campus in Orlando, head coach Jacque Vaughn mused that it was possible there would be eight different starting lineups before it was done. Things didn’t get that extreme, but there was plenty of lineup tinkering along the way. When Vaughn put Caris LeVert, Garrett Temple, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, and Jarrett Allen together in the starting lineup for the Aug. 7 game against Sacramento, it was something to stick with.

The adjustment moved LeVert to the point, while adding Temple and Kurucs to the starting group.

Heading into Monday’s Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, they’ve gone 3-1 since then, and in the lone loss they put up 133 points in a shootout with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Over the final four games, the Nets were fourth in the league with a 120.1 offensive rating, and that’s with LeVert, Temple, Harris, and Allen sitting out the Aug. 11 win over Orlando. Over the first four games, the Nets were 14th with a 112.4 offensive rating.

In the three games the current starting lineup has been intact, they’ve played 42 minutes together, shooting 53.8 percent from the field, 51.6 percent from 3-point range, and putting together a 127.0 offensive rating.

“I think probably the fact that we’ve all been together for a while has something to do with it,” said Harris, who is in his fourth season playing with LeVert and third with Allen. “We know how to play off of each other. We know what each particular guys’ strengths are. We play around that and we’re able to be pretty efficient offensively.”

With the first unit scoring at that level, it’s helping Brooklyn get off to strong starts and not getting into trouble early in games. The Nets are averaging 33.5 first-quarter points over the last four games. That could be vital for the seventh-seeded Nets in their first-round playoff series against defending champion Toronto, which enters the playoffs with the NBA’s second-best record.

“It’s just giving us early confidence in the course of the game, and it has a calming effect,” said Vaughn. “I think putting GT in the starting lineup gives Caris someone else he can lean on, someone else who can keep us stable as we start the game. Rodi gives us length with JA, so, the versatility to defend gives us more options defensively. That group has been really good together and I look forward to that still occurring as we get going.”

Against the Raptors, that free-flowing Brooklyn offense will face a challenge, from the starters to the second unit. Toronto is second in the NBA in defensive rating (104.7), and during their eight games in Orlando the Raptors have been even tougher, with a 102.7 defensive rating that is the best in the league since the restart.

“This Toronto staff will challenge you,” said Vaughn. “You’ll start wanting to be creative and out-think them, but at the same time, have to put my players hat on a little bit and have a fresh mind and a fresh body. We won’t overwhelm them with too many new things, but we will have to make some adjustments on the fly. They’re an aggressive defensive team and they make you make decisions and they try to stress you out. They put you through a stress test, whether that is the way they converge on pick-and-roll coverage, the way they converge in the paint, the way they fly at you in contesting shots, so we will have opportunities to shoot the basketball, and we encourage our guys to do that.”

The Raptors will switch aggressively on pick-and-rolls, they’re second in steals per game (8.8), second in opponent turnovers (16.8), and second in points off turnovers (19.5). Ball movement has been key for Brooklyn — the Nets are second in the NBA in assists with 27.8 per game since the restart — but they’re open to pulling the trigger a little quicker, opting to take the good shot over searching for the great one. Sometimes you’ve got to press the opportunity that presents itself.

“Toronto’s one of the better defensive teams in the league,” said Harris. “They hang their hat on the defensive end, just making things tough on guys. They throw a lot of different schematic matchups at you, but for us, it’s really more about continuing to try and play the way that we’ve been playing. We’re not going to be able to break these guys down one-on-one initially, you’re going to have to move the ball, move yourself, take shots when they’re they. They contest the 3-point line really well, run guys off the line. I think it’s about continuing to make simple plays and being aggressive. You’ve got to be the aggressor. They do well defensively because they’re usually the aggressive team on that end, but we have to match it.”

TLC RISING FOR BROOKLYN

Success in Orlando for the Nets was always going to require a group of players to elevate their production, and while the trio of Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen has led the way, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been right behind them.

Over eight games, Luwawu-Cabarrot averaged 14.8 points in 22.8 minutes per game, shooting 50.6 percent overall, 45.1 percent from 3-point range on 6.4 attempts per game, and 89.5 percent from the free throw line.

“Extremely impactful. I think his play, and you see it in his confidence and you see it on both ends on the floor,” said Jacque Vaughn. “So he’ll be crucial to this series — his ability to make shots and make plays for us. And then defensively, he’ll guard multiple positions. He could guard (Pascal) Siakam, he could guard Kyle Lowry. We’ll lean on him on both ends of the floor. I hope he’s feeling the confidence that the staff has in him and the players around him. We always talk about it’s huge, whether you’re the first guy or the 15th guy, having the confidence to go out there and play is a huge part of success.”

Luwawu-Cabarrot’s averaged 25.0 points in his two starts — 26 against Milwaukee and 24 against Orlando, both Brooklyn wins — but over the other six games he was still part of the highest-scoring bench group in Orlando.

The Nets have led the league in bench scoring since the restart, with 49.0 points per game, and they’re the only team with four players averaging double figures off the bench. Aside from Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 11.3 points coming off the bench, there’s Tyler Johnson (15.5), Chris Chiozza (10.6), and Jeremiah Martin (10.3).

BATTLING TORONTO’S BIGS

Size is not a strength for the Nets right now. After 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen, they don’t have an active player taller than 6-9. Allen is averaging 34 minutes a game in Orlando, well above his average of 27 before the restart, and that includes early-ish exits in one-sided losses to Orlando and Boston. He’s played 36 minutes and up in wins over the Wizards, Kings, and Clippers and the one-point loss to the Blazers. The 6-foot-9 Rodions Kurucs, now starting at forward, has been Allen’s primary backup.

Toronto presents a challenge here, with 6-11, 255-pound Marc Gasol and 7-foot, 235-pound Serge Ibaka. The center duo presents brings multi-dimensional threats as well. They’re both shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range on a combined 6.7 attempts per game, with Gasol averaging 3.3 assists as well.

“I played with Marc last year (in Memphis) obviously and Serge's mid-range game and his 3-point game is great,” said Garrett Temple. “Especially for a big. Marc is a little more reluctant to shoot the 3, slower release, he's much more of a passer but obviously he will and can shoot the 3 so JA is going to be helping us out, but if he leaves Marc or Serge out there we definitely have to help him with maybe a stunt or if those guys get it going a rotation, whatever it may be.

“But first and foremost those guards really get in the paint and we need the best shot blocker in the league to do what he does. With that being said if we do get in a situation where it's a switch and Marc or Serge is in the post, we'll determine what happens when that does happen. That doesn't happen very often honestly the way that they play and so we'll see what happens when it does, when they do do that but we're definitely going to give JA little help. Once he's protecting the paint, we'll help him out on the perimeter if those guys hit a few 3s.”

ABOUT THE RAPTORS

As mentioned above, the Raptors are among the league’s defensive leaders, and they’ll turn it into offense with those 19.5 points off turnovers. They’re also first in the league in fast break points (18.8). On that offensive end, Toronto is one of the league’s top 3-point teams, ranking third in 3-pointers made (13.8), fifth in 3-point percentage (37.4), and sixth in 3-point attempts (37.0). Eight Raptors rotation players are shooting 35 percent or better from 3-point range, and they’re eighth in the NBA in effective field goal percentage (53.6). Pascal Siakam averages 22.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists, and Kyle Lowry averages 19.4 points and 7.5 assists. Fred VanVleet averages 17.6 points and 6.6 assists.