The Brooklyn Nets had a couple of bright spots through the first two games of their first round series with the Toronto Raptors, with the brightest clearly the play of Jarrett Allen, who has blossomed into more than just a lob finisher and rim protector.
But, not satisfied with a 2-0 series lead, the Raptors ruined the fun of watching Allen make plays, erasing the 22-year-old center from the Brooklyn offense in Game 3 on Friday. After a scare in Game 2, the champs were back to taking care of business. And they put themselves on the brink of their first ever series sweep with an easy 117-92 victory.
Offensively, the Raptors got Pascal Siakam going offensively on Friday. After totaling 37 points and four assists through the first two games, the All-Star had 26 and five on Friday. Fred VanVleet remained aflame, scoring 22 points and draining 6 of his 10 3-point attempts.
But the Raps are a defensive team first and foremost. Game 3 was another example of how they can turn the screws on that end of the floor, and on this afternoon in Orlando, Allen was the focus of that screw-turning.
12 — Restricted-area attempts for the Nets in Game 3.
The Nets’ 16 restricted-area attempts in Game 2 were a season low. And then they got four fewer in Game 3, with only seven restricted-area attempts through the first three quarters.
Brooklyn was a bottom-10 shooting team from every area (restricted area, other paint shots, mid-range and 3-point range) this season. But they were, at least, good at getting to the most important of those areas. The Nets ranked third in the percentage of their shots that came in the restricted area (36%).
They haven’t been so good at getting to the basket in this series. (Spencer Dinwiddie’s absence hurts in this regard.) And those layups and dunks have become more scarce with every game.
Some of the Game 3 shot distribution was by the Nets’ own design. Playing without seven guys who didn’t even make the trip to Orlando and Joe Harris (who left for personal reasons after Game 2), Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn knew his team was outmatched against the defending champs. So he went for a win by variance.
“It was part of our game plan to shoot 50 3s,” Vaughn said. “We were thinking that would give us a chance to be in the game, if we made a good percentage.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse was on the same page.
“We had talked about them shooting 50-55 3s today,” he said. “I think it is pretty smart by them to kind of go in there and do that. They have got some smaller lineups and some guys that can shoot it and let it fly.”
And the Raptors employ a defense that will allow you to do so: In the regular season, 44% of their opponents’ shots, the league’s highest rate, came from beyond the arc.
Alas, the Nets ranked 26th in 3-point percentage (34.3%) in the regular season and were missing their best shooter. They did reach their goal, attempting 51 3s (their third-highest total of the season) on Friday. But they made just 16 (31%) of the 51.
And surely, the Nets would have liked a few more layups or dunks, especially from Allen, who shot 72% in the restricted area in the regular season. Allen got fouled twice in the paint, but didn’t have a single field goal attempt in the box score.
The Nets’ 6-foot-11 center set more than 30 ball screens in Game 3. But not once did he get a clean roll to the rim. Those two trips to the line came off an isolation drive by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and an after-timeout play for him to catch the ball in the paint after getting a pin-down screen.
In Game 2 on Wednesday, the Raptors focused their pick-and-roll defense on LeVert, with their bigs up at the level of the screen to corral the Nets’ primary ball-handler and plenty of space for Allen to roll into and receive a pass:
If none of the other three defenders met Allen in the paint, he got all the way to the rim. And if the Raptors rotated to the roll, he kicked the ball out to the open shooter, picking up five assists (all on 3s).
With the Nets’ young center having proven himself a pretty adept playmaker and with LeVert having shot 0-for-6 from 3-point range through the first two games, the Raptors switched things up for Game 3. They gave LeVert more space and Allen less.
On the Nets’ second possession on Friday, Marc Gasol was out near the 3-point line, but retreating to not allow Allen to get behind him.
Not having Harris’ floor spacing and offensive production certainly hurt Brooklyn. And the Nets’ weak-side defenders did do their part in keeping Allen from getting to the rim. But even if Harris was there, the Raptors’ Game 3 scheme required less help off the ball and enabled the other three defenders to stay closer to home on the Nets’ shooters.
If Brooklyn was going to take 50 3s, they were going to come from LeVert off the dribble or from more tightly-guarded shooters off the ball. Not only did Allen not get any shots off of rolls to the rim, none of his three assists were from pick-and-roll actions.
“We adjusted some coverages there,” Nurse said. “We kind of changed a lot to not let him get the ball.”
The quality of the Raptors’ defense — which ranked second during the regular season and now ranks second in the playoffs — goes well beyond their initial execution of the pick-and-roll game plan. Vaughn said that his team’s lack of layups in this series has been “byproduct of their ability to have multiple efforts.”
And maybe the adjustment wasn’t necessary. The Raptors could have won Game 3 by simply improving their execution of the Game 2 game plan. Heck, they won Game 2 despite all of Allen’s damage in the paint. But this team has dreams of another long run in these playoffs, you have to be able to win in different ways, and even against an outmatched opponent, every game is an opportunity to expand and fine-tune your skill set.
The “drop” coverage might not work well against the league’s best pull-up jump-shooting team in the next round (aka the Atlantic Division Finals), but that’s a conversation for another day. And even if the Celtics generally call for the Game 2 game plan, you can’t give a good team just one look.
“We tweaked some things,” VanVleet said, in regard to keeping Allen from getting his catches on Friday. “I think Caris got a little more loose than he did previously due to the scheme change that we did. [We] keep trying to give them different looks and not give them the same look every game.
“We gave Caris a little more. We gave Allen a little less. Obviously we know they missed Joe tonight. We were able to stay home on some of the other guys. It’s a chess match. You’ve got to keep continuing to make adjustments throughout the series.”
The Nets might as well try for variance again in Game 4 on Sunday (6:30 ET, TNT), so expect another 50 3-point attempts. They might see more opportunities for LeVert against the drop scheme when they watch the Game 3 film, but they can’t be sure that the Raptors won’t change the scheme again. Maybe the champs will switch everything just for the heck of it.
The Raptors will be going for the first playoff series sweep in franchise history. And more important than making history is getting done with the first round so that they can get some rest and start game planning for a likely series against the Celtics, a much tougher opponent than the scrappy Nets.
Nurse admitted on Friday that, from night to night, he’s not sure who the eighth man in his rotation will be. (It was Terence Davis on Friday.) No matter what, he’s going to lean heavily on his top seven, a group with championship experience that’s finally healthy.
“They are going to play a lot of minutes for us,” he said. “I think taking care of business will help us.”
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