In the NBA playoffs, no two games are the same. Even in a series that pits the defending champion and No. 2 seed with 53 wins against the shorthanded No. 7 seed with 35 wins, there is no script. And Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets couldn’t have been any more different.
In Game 1 on Monday, the Raptors led wire-to-wire and by as many as 33 points. In Wednesday’s Game 2, Brooklyn jumped out to an early 26-12 lead and was on top for most of the first 40 minutes.
But in the fourth quarter, the champs looked more like the champs, figuring things out offensively and using a 19-5 run to take control. The Raptors held on for a 104-99 victory that put them up 2-0 as the series changes court graphics for Games 3 and 4.
+22 — Raptors’ point differential in the restricted area in Game 2.
As the Los Angeles Lakers would tell you right now, it’s a make-or-miss league. In Game 1, the Raptors made 22 3s. And in Game 2, there was a lot more missing, as they shot 9-for-35 from beyond the arc.
The Nets made a defensive adjustment by switching all screens. This is a team that had, all season, done everything to keep its rim-protecting centers in the paint. Only the Milwaukee Bucks had allowed a lower percentage of their opponents’ shots to come in the restricted area than the Nets (28%).
But in the playoffs, teams will abandon what they’ve done all season if the matchup calls for it. The Raptors’ offense relies on ball movement; It ranked third in secondary assists per game and eighth in passes per 24 minutes of possession. And to stifle some of that ball movement, the Nets had Allen do something he’d rarely done in his three seasons in the NBA: switch every screen and defend guards one-on-one.
The adjustment worked in the first half as the Raptors scored just 50 points on 52 offensive possessions, settling for a few too many jumpers. They attempted more 3s (21) than shots in the restricted area (17) and they got to the line for just 11 free throw attempts in the half.
Things changed in the second half. The Raptors scored just four more points in the final 24 minutes (54) than they did in the first 24 (50), but they did it on seven fewer possessions (54 on 45). In the second half, they took took more shots in the restricted area (16) than they did from 3-point range (10), and they got to the line for 17 attempts.
With the additional looks inside, the Game 2 scoring flipped most of the Game 1 numbers:
|Area||Game 1||Game 2|
|Total in paint||-20||+14|
|Total outside paint||+15||-9|
“I think this is a really good example of playoff basketball,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said afterward. “Each game takes a whole different shape. Now I would assume Game 3’s gonna take another one. It’s what makes it so interesting and intriguing, I think.
The Raptors aren’t the most complete team in this postseason. But their title run last year put them in a lot of different situations, and they’ve learned they can win in multiple ways. It’s just a matter of figuring things out before the clock expires at the end of the fourth quarter.
“I always say there’s a lot of ways to win a game,” Nurse said, “and you just got to find one of them.”
When the defense is switching screens, the offense can hunt mismatches, looking to isolate a guard against a slow-footed big or post a big against a small guard. The Raptors did some of that — “finding a matchup we could hit to the paint with and then make a good decision, either finish it off or dump it off or kick it out,” according to Nurse — and they got a late bucket from a Serge Ibaka post-up against Caris LeVert after a switch.
But their isolations against Allen mostly came up empty. According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Raptors scored just two points on six isolations against Allen (though Pascal Siakam left a couple of points at the line after a foul), with five of those six isos coming prior to the the fourth quarter.
In the final 12 minutes, the Raptors just didn’t use many screens, attacking more 1-on-1.
“You do a little more cutting and a lot less setting of screens,” Nurse said of his team’s approach to a switching defense. “Then we just try to stay away from ball screens, too. We tried to run some more off-ball, pin down actions and quite a few set plays. We usually like to play a pretty open concept type offense but tonight we were calling a lot of plays just to move ’em around and create a bunch of switches before we attacked the paint.”
Here’s a few ways they found success in the fourth quarter:
The Raptors’ second possession of the fourth lasted 20 seconds, but didn’t include a single screen. They almost lost the ball at one point, but late in the clock, VanVleet was able to get by Caris LeVert, draw help, and dump the ball off for an Ibaka layup.
Three possessions later, VanVleet waves his teammates to the left side of the floor so he can again go 1-on-1 with LeVert. He blows by the Nets’ bubble star (who’s maybe feeling the toll of the offensive load he’s been carrying) for another layup.
Ibaka sets a screen for VanVleet, but instead of using it and seeing a switch from Allen, VanVleet rejects the screen and attacks the paint again. Tyler Johnson is able to stay with him and force a miss.
VanVleet isolates against Johnson at the top of the floor, but makes a quick pitch to OG Anunoby, who attacks the seam created by Allen shading toward VanVleet. LeVert helps from the weak side and commits a foul.
After Norman Powell missed a jumper on their first possession of the fourth, the Raptors scored 21 points on their next 11 possessions to turn a six-point deficit into a seven-point lead. They figured out how to attack the Nets’ new defense, and they executed with the game on the line.
The coaches’ night
Wednesday was a day for the Raptors’ coaching staff to earn their paychecks. They have an experienced, veteran core of players that don’t necessarily need a lot of guidance from night-to-night. But with Game 2 being much more of a slog than Game 1, and with the Nets’ adjustments working well, the players needed some input from the sidelines.
“There’s games where they defer way more to the coaching staff than other games,” Nurse said. “Some nights, they got a lot of suggestions and a lot of answers and they want to do this and that because they’re on the floor doing it. And there’s some nights where everything seems to be going wrong and they’re like ‘You guys gotta help us man, what the hell are you doing over here?’
“So they’re good at kind of being on both of those things. Tonight was really way more about gutting it out, there was a lot of matchup changing, coverage changing, that kind of stuff.
“We really had to hang in there, we were getting hit around pretty hard, they were trying to deliver a knockout punch to us and we just kinda hung in long enough to keep fighting and gut it out.”
Nurse says we should expect something different in Game 3 on Friday (1:30 ET, NBA TV), so let’s expect something different. We did see a few possessions of 3-2 zone in the third quarter from Toronto on Wednesday, and maybe we see more of that going forward.
The Nets need to get LeVert all the way to the basket more than than they did in Game 2, when he shot 5-for-22, with only one of those 22 shots coming in the restricted area. Maybe they take a page from the Raptors’ book, forgo sending LeVert a screen, and let him isolate with more space.
After a brutal outing from Rodions Kurucs (only matched by that of Marc Gasol), we could see another rotation change from the Nets, who put Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the starting lineup and only played eight guys on Wednesday. Brooklyn will likely be without Joe Harris, who left Orlando after Game 2 to attend to a personal matter.
The Raptors won’t get complacent, and should have another offensive wrinkle or two if Brooklyn continues to switch screens as liberally as it did on Wednesday.
In the words of the likely Coach of the Year, it’s what makes it so interesting and intriguing.
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