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Tactical Issues: What adjustments will we see in Game 2 from Toronto?

Game 1 showed us the defensive focus for the Raptors and Nets. Brooklyn may have found some counters. Meanwhile, Toronto needs to find more ways to get Siakam going.

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors backed up their talent advantage with a solid overall strategy from coach Nick Nurse in Game 1 on Monday. Defensively, the Raptors focused on stopping Caris LeVert, and took advantage of the wide-open threes created by their aggression to get in the paint and collapse the Nets’ zone defense. They also saw a lot of daylight thanks to the extreme drop coverage that Jarrett Allen was playing in the middle.

On the other side of the court, coach Jacque Vaughn concentrated on stopping Pascal Siakam and struggled to get his team to keep up with the Raptors’ scoring barrage. It took Vaughn a while, but he might have stumbled on something that could work for him and the Nets in Game 2.

For Game 2, the Nets should definitely double-down on their zone defense. This might let the Raptors get those threes off early, but it’ll let them see if what they saw in Game 1 was a fluke. Offensively, they could make a change to their starting lineup — more on this later. The Raptors, meanwhile, could use a tweak or two offensively, as they need to get Siakam going. Defensively, coach Nurse has to make a bit of an adjustment on how to deal with the Nets’ small-ball lineups.

Let’s look at some of the strategies the Nets and the Raptors used in Game 1 — and potential adjustments.

Scouting the Strategies

Defending LeVert

Nick Nurse was not kidding when he said he was planning to have LeVert see multiple defenders. Caris is both a good player, and one of the few real offensive threats the Nets have. So sure, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, all had their turn defending LeVert, but it was the overall defensive strategy that suffocated Levert.

For starters, VanVleet set the tone early. He was picking up LeVert full court, trying to poke the ball loose as often as possible. VanVleet had enough quickness to stay in front of LeVert, and is stout enough not to allow him to go downhill or post-up.

The Nets’ offense run on LeVert screen actions with Jarrett Allen. Toronto’s game plan is for Gasol to show hard and try to trap LeVert, forcing him to kick the ball back out. It rattled the Nets early and often, as all of a sudden, they couldn’t get much going with a LeVert-orchestrated offense.

The Raptors would also play zone (1-2-2 or 3-2) on most of LeVert’s screening actions from the top of the key, allowing them to periodically check Allen when he rolls to the basket. Should LeVert decide to go ISO, the same zone defense means he’d have to get past multiple defenders and Gasol or Ibaka waiting to meet him inside.

LeVert’s post-ups were neutralized for the most part, as the Raptors would send a hard double if he tried to backdown VanVleet. In addition, help would come from the weak side if he tried to go baseline.

LeVert did take advantage of a few of the Raptors’ mistakes — whether it was a defensive miscommunication or slow rotations — and he made them pay by getting to the basket. However, Nurse countered in the fourth quarter by having Ibaka blitz him hard, forcing him to give up the ball.

Defending Siakam

The Nets held Siakam to 18 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Bubble Siakam’s shooting woes continued through Game 1, but the Nets were partially responsible for that.

Pascal Siakam stares at the Great Wall of Brooklyn

The Nets used the same approach they put together on Giannis Antetokounmpo. They went under him on screens and were comfortable leaving him open on the perimeter. Siakam likes to ISO from the perimeter, and he was met with a wall of defenders, as the Nets had their 3-2 zone intent to stop him.

Coach Vaughn also had Jarrett Allen sagging off Gasol, pretty much playing free-safety. Allen would immediately drop and help out whoever’s defending Siakam once he moved to the basket. If Allen’s not on the floor, a Siakam post-up will send a double-team almost immediately.

To Siakam’s credit, he didn’t force the issue too much and was able to kick the ball out after collapsing the Nets defense. He did have a nifty assist to Marc Gasol on one play, but the Raptors did not have many cutters on most of his possessions.

The Rally Nets

Things turned around for the Nets when Vaughn made an excellent move by going smaller, going with Rodions Kurucs in the middle, along with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, LeVert, Joe Harris, and Garrett Temple. They pushed the pace hard and started making a more concerted effort to get to the basket. They were also able to get some easy baskets in transition and saw that Gasol struggled to keep up with his rotations against multiple drive-and-kick possessions.

Brooklyn stuck with this strategy — in part because Kurucs got five fouls in the first half — inserting Luwawu-Cabarrot to start the second half. It was LeVert’s quicker decision to give up the ball (while being always ready to get it back), that let his teammates prod the Raptors’ scrambling defense and cause some havoc. All of a sudden, the perimeter looks got better and they were able to get in the paint much easier. At the same time, the Raptors’ defense made some mistakes with their rotations and got caught ball-watching. It’s true, Toronto may have just stepped off the gas — but those defensive miscues did happen.

Potential Adjustments

For the Nets:

Starting Lineup Change

The Nets found their best five-man unit in Game 1, with Luwawu-Cabarrot in place of Kurucs. It made the Nets faster and gave their offense another weapon on the perimeter as both a shooter and slasher. Adding Luwawu-Cabarrot to the starting lineup might allow the Nets to keep up with the Raptors, and potentially play Marc Gasol off the floor.

The downside to this move is that it could get Siakam going, as he’ll have less length to worry about. It should be a mismatch once he gets the ball inside — especially if Allen comes in late on his rotation over. There’s also the fact that starting Luwawu-Cabarrot makes an already thin bench even thinner, but the firepower he’s bringing to the starting lineup may be too much to resist.

For the Raptors:

Get Siakam Going Part 1: Go Small

With the Nets’ roster, Nurse can afford to go small, with Anunoby and Siakam as the only bigs. It could force the Nets to match Allen up with Siakam, which could be an opportunity for Siakam to go at Allen from the perimeter.

Should the Nets counter by putting Allen on Anunoby, Siakam and Anunoby can initiate a screen action to force the switch. With Siakam’s (and OG’s) passing, this should collapse the Nets’ defense and open up perimeter shots, assuming the Nets continue to work to clog the paint.

Get Siakam Going Part 2: Go to the Post

Like we’ve seen with Serge Ibaka in Game 1, there’s no reason not to see Siakam posting up, especially if he’s got a smaller defender on him. His play out of that position allows for all sorts of scoring opportunities, it draws fouls, and it usually forces Brooklyn to double-team, which opens up even more on the floor for Toronto.

In truth, there is no wrong way for Siakam to go about attacking the Nets in the post. If he moves quick, it’s tough for any of his defenders to stop him without fouling. Meanwhile, if he takes his time and backs down his man, that double team is coming — and Siakam is a willing passer, which just generates open 3s eventually for Toronto.

Get Siakam Going Part 3: Off-Ball Cutter

The Nets were able to keep Siakam at bay on most of his moves with the defense keying on his attack. However, there were opportunities (in both makes and misses) where he was able to get good looks by moving off-ball.

The Nets’ zone defense is still green, and they are not used to reading and reacting on the actions outside of where the ball is, so this could be a weak point that Nurse can take advantage of. This is additionally true when we remember how quick and savvy Siakam has shown himself to be.

Get Siakam Going Part 4: As the Screen Setter

There’s no reason why Nurse can’t keep using Siakam as the screener. It’s a great pet play for the Raptors — the 1-4 pick-and-roll with Lowry — but it could be used even more. With the Nets’ drop coverage, Siakam’s gravity on the roll frees up the ballhandler (Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell) for wide-open threes and the like.

If Siakam gets the ball on the roll, that same space gives him all sorts of options too — going downhill, taking an open three, making a pass to the short corner, etc. So far we’ve seen some of this happening with Siakam and the Raptors, but it will likely be a major part of their offense moving forward.