In all the excitement of the NBA restart, it’s fine if you haven’t watched much Brooklyn Nets basketball.
With an injury report that goes as deep as many teams’ rotations, the borough came into Orlando without many of its high contract pieces. Kevin Durant remained adamant about staying out for the 2019-20 season, no matter what form it took. Kyrie Irving is out with a shoulder injury. DeAndre Jordan came down with COVID-19. Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Taurean Prince all opted out of the restart. Even Jamal Crawford, the 40-year-old who hadn’t played professional ball in 14 months, hurt his hamstring in the first seeding game and has yet to return.
So, do the Toronto Raptors really have anything to worry about in their first round matchup against the zombie Nets?
As the second seed taking on the seventh seed, it’s obvious that the Raptors should be favoured. The Nets, however, shouldn’t be judged by who’s not here. In the bubble, they’ve been scrappy and capable — especially on the offensive end — carrying a 5-3 record and vaulting the Magic to get into this matchup.
With the eyes of the entire league on them this past Thursday, they put up a dogged fight trying to play spoiler to Portland’s playoff berth. In a game that came down to a final possession, Caris LeVert came within three inches of sending the Blazers home unceremoniously — even with a roster that, frankly, comes with as many second round draft picks as a certain other Atlantic Division team.
So while you can feel safe picking the Raptors to win this series, there’s a good chance a few games come down to the wire. What I’m saying is, prepare to be a bit annoyed by this Nets team that’s outperforming their record.
What should you watch for as it goes down? Here are three storylines the series will revolve around.
Siakam Sorting Out Struggles
Coming into this season, the spotlight on Pascal Siakam was never brighter. With Kawhi Leonard off to the Clippers, Siakam was touted as the Raptors’ new go-to scorer. On a team with several players who can share production, Siakam was the guy you throw the ball to when you need a basket. Through the early parts of the season, he shone in that role.
Since the restart, though, it’s been a bit more shaky. While Siakam has generally given the Raptors the production they need to win games — averaging 16.9 points and 5.7 rebounds — he’s struggled with his touch on the inside, and has increasingly relied on his three-point shot.
When you consider Siakam’s shot stream from inside the bubble to the season as a whole, the cost of his efficiency has been paid with three-pointers.
In 2019-20 as a whole, Siakam was a balanced, modern forward (an All-Star!) — propping up his percentage with a sharp ability to finish, alongside a steady diet of three-pointers. He shot 61.6% on shots less than five feet.
That number has dropped to 53.3% in the bubble, and the stream shows that Siakam’s effective field goal percentage has dropped despite a three-point percentage that’s helped balance it out.
Indeed, one bright spot has been that Siakam has made 50% of his corner threes in the bubble, even if it’s only been on six takes.
Against the Nets, Siakam is the single guy who can have his way on the offensive end. While he was mainly guarded by Taurean Prince in three regular season games, the Nets may be forced to put Rodions Kurucs on him to start games, with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot taking a turn off the bench.
Siakam was already able to get to the rim in this matchup against Prince, scoring 22.0 points against the Nets while only needing to take 5.3 threes per game. He was also effective as a pinpoint distributor, averaging 4.3 assists against Brooklyn.
What the Raptors need from Siakam in this series is an opportunity to settle into his game on the offensive end. Without a Brooklyn defender that can give him a true battle, Siakam should have the freedom to make wiser shot selections. This includes taking the ball to the rim more often, being patient with his isolations, and not settling too much for the above-the-break threes that he’s added to his diet this season.
Nick Nurse may also break the glass on his supersized lineup in this series, given the lack of traditional bigs on the Nets. Putting Siakam at the small forward besides Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will force Brooklyn into even less favourable matchups — ones Siakam can exploit if he’s determined to take the ball inside.
Siakam hasn’t been bad in the bubble, far from it. But the Raptors have big aspirations for the post-season, and will need the decision-making of their go-to shotmaker to be at its sharpest in a possible second round matchup with the Celtics and beyond.
Lowry and VanVleet Against Size
While size at the forward position isn’t a strong suit of the Nets, their guards could present a challenge to the skillful, yet relatively diminutive pair of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Brooklyn has been starting Caris LeVert and Garrett Temple in the backcourt. While neither is an exceptional player on the defensive end — the Nets as a whole were a bottom five defense in the bubble at a rating of 116.0 — at 6’6” and 6’5” respectively, they can at least challenge the shots of Lowry and VanVleet in one-on-one situations. Get those two going downhill, and there’s another challenge at the rim in the form of Jarrett Allen.
I like Allen a lot, and he’s going to be key to what Brooklyn wants to do in this series. He’s been the best rebounder on the Nets by a country mile, gobbling a 9.9% offensive rebound rate and a 21.4% defensive rebound rate, and has the team’s best player impact estimate according to NBA.com stats.
You could see against Portland a bit of a blueprint of how the Nets could guard VanVleet and Lowry. With aggressive trapping schemes, Brooklyn can force Lowry and VanVleet into downhill sequences that funnel them into Allen at the rim.
Now, the Raptors are just as smart (if not smarter) than the Blazers when faced with those schemes. Against a trap, Toronto’s guards can simply kick the ball out and start swing sequences to find an open shooter. It’s the main downside to playing aggressive. The only thing Toronto needs to rely on is that their open shooters make shots — which hasn’t been a given in the bubble, albeit one that’s been corrected in recent games — and that Lowry and VanVleet stay patient enough to create if they can’t get their own offense jumpstarted.
I don’t have much doubt in their ability to do any of this. However, that ability to guard one-on-one and present Allen at the rim at least makes the Nets interesting, and presents a curveball to Nurse’s plays that call on guard isolation.
Hot Hand Risks and Raptors’ Defense
You have to give it to the Nets on this one: even with a zombified roster, they’ve got some shotmakers.
Since the restart, noted Raptors annoyance Joe Harris has been draining threes at a 54.1% clip (6.2 takes per game) and Luwawu-Cabarrot has made 45.1% on 6.4 takes. Tyler Johnson and the aforementioned Temple have also been capable at 38.9% and 37.5% respectively.
Defending against great three-point shooting teams, the Raptors’ identity has been to give them up, but give them up to the right guys. You’re likely to see a lot of open shots for Kurucs, or even LeVert — who has averaged 25.0 points a game, but shot just 25.8% on threes in the bubble. You can believe in this strategy for the Raptors too, as the NBA’s best bubble defense, they’ve been scrappy in shutting down the Lakers and Heat just by going all-in on “leave the crappy shooter open”.
Still, there’s no shutting off the faucet entirely. I’m imagining at least one game in this series where the Nets go hog wild from distance and steal a game — there’s just too much variance when you face a team that shoots so confidently (and has such youthful exuberance in doing so!).
The key for the Raptors is just to stay the course and stay confident in what they’re running. It’s something we’re all used to seeing since the 2018-19 title win, and what’s made this Toronto team so easy to root for during the regular season. They’re comfortable wearing who they are, against any opponent, and stick to that enough to come out on top.
Against the Nets, there are storylines to watch for, but the series comes down to that. If the Raptors play like we’ve seen them all season, this should be a wrap in relatively short order.
Prediction: Raptors in 5