When it comes to the Brooklyn Nets, the first question is usually about who is not playing. But in advance of Game 1 vs. the Toronto Raptors, we have to wonder: who is still playing? Interim coach Jacque Vaughn is driving this ragtag group of overachievers, and has them playing at a higher ceiling collectively than compared to their talent individually.
In the Bubble, the Nets can boast impressive upset wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and L.A. Clippers, along with a statement performance against Dame Lillard and the Blazers. But are the Nets legit or just getting by with a few lucky breaks and a relatively easy Bubble schedule? Further to that: how will the Raptors respond to them?
Lineup and Rotation
The Nets’ earlier seeding games allowed them to figure out what works for their starting lineup. They initially went with Lance Thomas and Tyler Johnson along with Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, and Joe Harris. They found their closing (and now their starting) lineup in Garrett Temple, Rodions Kurucs, Allen, Levert, and Harris.
Depending on the matchup (or any Vaughn experimentation), one of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Chris Chiozza or Tyler Johnson would be the first sub off the bench. Kurucs would slide over as their small-ball “big” when Allen goes for a breather. Taken altogether, this allows Brooklyn to play as run-and-gun style as one would expect with a talent-deficient (and relatively small) roster. It’s no accident that their best two players (LeVert and Harris) both benefit from a scheme that allows them to fire up a lot of shots.
The Nets’ lineup doesn’t have a lot of size, with Allen as the only legit centre on the roster. Their next tallest player is Kurucs, who’s more of a power forward (at best). Because of this limitation, coach Vaughn has responded with a lot of zone defense.
A 3-2 zone was used to wall off a Giannis Antetokounmpo-type of downhill player attacking from the perimeter. Meanwhile, the Nets would invert to a 2-3 zone for Jusuf Nurkic or Nikola Vucevic-type post-up players. Vaughn has also copied Nurse’s box-and-one on Damian Lillard.
The Nets are not afraid to blitz hard on the pick-and-roll, as seen when Lillard was the ball handler last week. In that case, they tried to trap him as soon as he crossed halfcourt. Once the Nets are done with the blitz, they tend to go back to man-to-man defense or pack the paint if there’s any intent for the offensive player to get to the basket. It’s worth noting here that Brooklyn’s zone defense also means Vaughn doesn’t necessarily have to hide LeVert, and theoretically prevents Allen from getting into foul trouble.
In that spirit, the Nets also use the inverse of “box-and-one” where four Nets players play man-to-man, with Allen essentially playing zone on the the strong side of the court. It allows the weaker defenders like LeVert to funnel their man to Allen for a contested shot.
Knowing that the Nets’ offense can’t contain everybody, they have been concentrating on shutting down the opposing team’s key player. I don’t have to go in great detail, but the Nets did a great job making life difficult for Giannis and Lillard in the seeding games. It takes a lot of effort, but that’s one thing these upstart Nets do have.
The Nets have kept their offense as simple as possible, as Vaughn has had to deal with almost a brand new team for the seeding games. Brooklyn’s M-O is simple: They have a couple of set plays they run a lot (variations on double high screens to free up LeVert and Harris); and if that bogs down, they’ll revert to a LeVert ISO or Allen screening for the ball handler. As such, look for the Nets to operate with continuous drive-and-kick action, until they find an open man on the perimeter or someone cutting to the basket.
As mentioned, the Nets will push the pace on turnovers, rebounds, and even on opponents’ made basket. If there’s no clear cut lay-up, whoever’s pushing the ball will draw defenders heading to the basket and kick out to someone around the perimeter. It’s textbook stuff, but this is what Brooklyn has to do to excel.
Allen is a big key to the Nets’ offense, as he provides ballhandlers with excellent screen setting. For him to score, the scenario has to see him rolling to the basket, provided the ballhandler attracts his man. Otherwise, he offers an emergency short kick-out around the shoulder, with a good awareness as to where his open teammates are on the perimeter. If there’s time, expect Allen to move back to the perimeter for a dribble hand-off. (It’ll be interesting to see how he does all of this against Marc Gasol, by the way.)
Meanwhile, Caris LeVert is the Nets’ best ISO player, capable of shedding his defender from up top or going to the block for a post-up. While Brooklyn enjoys the shooting of Harris (and even Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot of late), LeVert will be the guy creating many of the scoring chances for his squad.
Coach Jacque Vaughn’s intense yet blank stare either contributes to the shock-and-awe the Nets deliver to their opponents, or it’s scaring his players into play better. Kidding aside, Vaughn has the team’s buy-in — his players are hustling hard for him and have bought into whatever defensive schemes he’s asked them to implement.
As mentioned above, Vaughn has pretty much let the game flow based on how opposing teams react to a few of their halfcourt sets, reverting to pick-and-roll/dribble hand-offs or drive-and-kick scenarios as the situation calls for them. Vaughn also has some decent sets for after timeouts that he’s managed to get away with due to opposing teams’ lack of scouting info on his plays.
Vaughn is quick to identify the momentum swing and will call a timeout immediately. For the most part, he’s done a decent job with his rotation. It was shaky at first, what with starting Lance Thomas and Tyler Johnson, but has since settled down now with Brooklyn’s obvious best five-man lineup.
The Nets’ best (and starting) lineup does not have a full-time ballhandler. As such, the Nets’ offensive sets sometimes bog down if the opposing team pressures the point of attack up top. With enough resistance, Brooklyn sometimes struggles to make entry passes and the like. It’s worth keeping an eye on here.
As with most zone defense schemes, the Nets suffer contesting and rebounding in the paint against bigger teams. They are not disciplined enough with their zone defense, especially when recovering to the shooters, leaving plenty of perimeter shots wide open.
The Nets are also careless with the ball. They have key players that are shaky once they put the ball on the floor — and even LeVert can be sloppy with the possession.
Defensively, while the Nets boast an improved scheme, it takes them a few seconds to get settled switching from offense to defense. Opposing teams have taken advantage of this by getting their playmakers going downhill fast, or by getting their rim-runners back for a pin-down or a transition basket. Again, these are things the Raptors can pounce on.
Game 1 Expectations
There’s enough evidence that the Raptors’ offense will bog down if they face a zone defense and fail to get going from the perimeter. However, if you look at those YouTube videos showing the Raptors’ weakness against the zone, you’d also often see a combination of Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher with some of the starters. That combo is just not going to happen in the playoffs for Toronto.
Run and Gun
The Nets will try to push the pace to get easy baskets and early offense perimeter shots. The Raptors’ backcourt will have to keep an eye for any potential leak out from the Nets. And of course, Toronto is also known for pushing the pace, thanks to Kyle Lowry’s relentless pressure with the ball. The Nets will have to labour in some cases just to keep up.
Heavy PnR/DHO Offense
The Raptors will stunt the Nets’ set play, resulting in a lot of screens by Allen. Unless the ballhandler is LeVert, this is just a misdirection to get their shooters to relocate around the perimeter. We know it, and it’s very likely that coach Nick Nurse knows it too.
Marc Gasol the Zonebuster
Marc Gasol eats zone defense for breakfast, as he’s one of the best passers to place in the high-post to collapse any zone. If Gasol doesn’t have the ball, he’s a perimeter threat too, willing to let fly (hopefully) or find someone for a quick swing pass. With Gasol’s presence, I believe OG Anunoby will have a better playoff series against the Nets than what he’s shown against them in the regular season. (And you best believe that Norman Powell is about to go off.)
Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are both excellent at pushing the ball in transition, putting a lot of pressure on the opposing team’s weak transition defense. This strategy gives the Raptors the chance to either score an easy basket, get an open kick-out, or a trip to the line.
Collapse the Zone
When the Raptors have struggled against zone defenses in the past, it’s been when they’ve played lineups lacking in shooting. Like every effective team nowadays, the Raptors like to shoot threes, and wide-open threes are quality shots. When Toronto is playing at peak health — as in, right now — they have enough playmakers that can put pressure on the Nets’ defense, forcing them to collapse and pack the paint. No zone defense will be safe once the Raptors start freeing up their quality shooters.
Siakam in the High Post
Siakam has had a tough time getting through multiple defenders in the zone, and while he hasn’t been used much in the high post against the zone, he’s shown that he can hang there. When in this position, Siakam can catch the ball and make a quick decision on whether to pull-up, pass, or get closer to the basket.
If Allen is late on the help, Siakam should tower against most of the Nets’ defenders. I know it’s the playoffs, but coach Nurse should give Siakam more reps in situations like this to add variety to Toronto’s attack.