One of the many great things about an NBA playoff series is that it operates on two levels. First there are the broad strokes, the easily digestible storylines that cater to the casual fans who only tune in for the postseason. In the case of the Raptors and Nets, these include the looming spectre of the Nets' collective experience and the Raptors' return to basketball in May.
On the second level, noticed mainly by the diehards, are the game-to-game adjustments that can tip the balance of power when the margin of error is so thin. Game 2 of the Raptors/Nets series was thrilling on both levels, a taut 100-95 Raptors win that saw the emergence of previously quiet stars (DeMar DeRozan, who scored 17 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter) and critical adjustments that transformed Landry Fields from end-of-bench squatter to the Joe Johnson Stopper.
Speculation before the game was that Dwane Casey would turn to Fields as the best option against Johnson, who bullied DeRozan and Terrence Ross in Game 1 to the tune of 24 points on 8-13 shooting. Speculation met reality and Fields played 18 effective minutes without taking a single shot, using his length and overall size to meet Johnson on the perimeter and keep him away from his favorite spots on the floor. Fields' contract has been rightly mocked since he signed it in the summer of 2012, but he earned his money in Game 2.
Fields getting minutes wasn't the only change Casey made to his rotation. John Salmons, Chuck Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough didn't play and only eight Raptors saw action, as compared to 12 in Game 1. The three frontcourt players - Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson - were all excellent and contributed to 52-30 advantage on the glass for Toronto.
For the Raptors, those were the differences. The similarities? We must begin with the 20 turnovers, which were littered through the roster and affected everyone who took the court. The nadir came when Greivis Vasquez turned it over on consecutive possessions late in the third quarter, squandering any chance the Raptors had of taking the lead going into the final frame. DeRozan, brilliant as he was late in the game, dribbled the ball off his leg with 42 seconds left and the Raptors up by two. The ensuing possession saw Paul Pierce miss a wide-open three, a potential killer that everyone in the Air Canada Centre (and me) thought was going in.
The Nets came with some adjustments of their own. Andrei Kirilenko's wife apparently got to Jason Kidd, because the Russian played 20 minutes of his trademark frenetic defense, grabbing four steals and covering a ludicrous amount of space. The overall length and size of the Nets also seemed to bother Kyle Lowry, who missed his first six shots and often struggled to turn the corner on high pick and rolls. Whether it was Kevin Garnett, Mason Plumlee or Andray Blatche, the Nets' bigs did an excellent job hedging and stringing Lowry from side-to-side, closing down most lanes to the basket except for a huge Lowry layup late in the fourth.
Speaking of late in the fourth: Any Raptors fan who feels great about the team's late-game execution is either an irrepressible optimist or blind. Far too many possessions in the fourth quarter had the Raptors going nowhere with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock, forcing (usually) DeRozan into tough attempts. He made some, and some of them were hugely important, but it's not a recipe for sustainable success. That has to be cleaned up as the series moves to Brooklyn, where the Raptors now must win in order to take the series.
After two games, both teams could make reasonable arguments that their performance is due to improve. The Nets have been horrific from three thus far (10-48) and, outside of some fourth quarter heroics, have got next to nothing from Pierce.
For the Raptors, the search party is still out for Terrence Ross, who has scored five points in 41 minutes through the first two games. Ross' defense, shooting and athleticism will be needed if the Raptors want to win on the road. Even more importantly, the Raptors must assume that their turnover woes (37 so far) will subside. They were 12th best in terms of taking care of the ball during the regular season, and converting some of those turnovers into useful possessions could make a world of difference.
There are two levels to an NBA playoff series. The first level is about DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and Deron Williams and Paul Pierce; the second is about Landry Fields and Andrei Kirilenko. Both are fascinating and will ebb and flow, sometimes from quarter to quarter. One is more obvious than the other, but the outcome of the series will be determined by both.
Game 3 goes Friday, and each team should feel like they have a legitimate chance to take it. If anything, that's a recipe for drama.