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Game 2 Breakdown: Toronto’s bench comes to the rescue

The Nets tried out some tactics that completely threw the Raptors’ starters off their game, but some heroics from a couple of bench units saved the game for Toronto.

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, much more to think about in Game 2! The Brooklyn Nets endeavoured to make it a real game with the Toronto Raptors for 48 minutes. The result? A nail-biter full of surprising struggles, great performances on both ends, and a bunch of stuff we haven’t seen very much before — some of which worked out great.

In all for the Raptors, just enough worked out to get them the win, the series standing now at 2-0 for Toronto. So, for our Game 2 breakdown, we’ll start with the obvious.

The Work of Norman Powell

Powell had a great game off the bench for the Raptors. He shot 11-for-17, ended up with 24 points on 17 used possessions (those 17 shots plus a trip to the line and an offensive board), didn’t turn the ball over once, added two assists and five defensive boards, and ended the night +16 in a 5-point win.

What might not jump out right away is that Norm shot only 1-for-6 from long range. Which is fine, shooters will experience some variance and he needs to take those shots with the bench (especially against a zone like the Nets were using).

But the point is, that means Norm went 10-for-11 (!) from inside the arc. That’s eight made layups/dunks at the rim (and no misses!) and a tidy 2-for-3 from the midrange. Which is just incredible finishing for a guy who has had his ups and downs in that department. On the afternoon, Powell was an absolutely crucial scoring punch inside when most of the other Raptors had little luck getting there against Brooklyn’s zone. He even got to close out the game with an emphatic dunk reminiscent of his big steal and dunk in Game 5 of the Indiana series in 2016 (though the steal this time around was a little less impressive).

All in all, a fantastic and much needed game from Powell.

The Shortened Bench

We did see nine players hit the floor this game for Toronto, but it was really an 8-man rotation. We saw a few minutes for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the first half, with Matt Thomas getting those few minutes in the second half. In my opinion, Thomas was the better choice against that zone, but both groups had success (RHJ was +5 in 6 minutes, Thomas +6 in 5 minutes). Although their success is buoyed by happening to get to play in the stretches where Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the Nets’ plus-minus wonder through two games (+3 in this game, +2 in the last one somehow) was resting.

It is interesting to note that the starters had an awful afternoon, anchored by a frustrating (and frustrated) performance from Gasol, who couldn’t get anything done at all (0 points on two shots, three turnovers to his two assists, for a team-worst -13). And yet three starters ended up on the right side of the point differential by the end of the game: Kyle Lowry broke even, and Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby were each +1. If you were wondering how that happened, let’s take a look at those bench units that played so well, listed in order of the units with the highest point differential.

Lineup | Minutes Played | Point Differential

FVV-MT-NP-OGA-SI: 4.0 MP, +7
KL-NP-OGA-PS-SI: 4.2 MP, +6
KL-FVV-NP-OGA-SI: 3.1 MP, +4

That Matt Thomas unit was awesome, powering to a +7 by scoring 12 points in four minutes. It’s the sort of offensive outburst the Raptors needed on a day when they really struggled to put points on the board, even on shots that are typically easy to convert (they shot about 25 percent on threes and under 70 percent from the free throw line — both anomalies). And that lineup did that without Kyle Lowry, which is impressive.

The other two Raptors units are an example of what the two main bench guys, Serge Ibaka and Powell, can do when used in starter heavy lineups. On a night when Gasol struggled, throwing Ibaka out there, and then Norm for one of the ball handlers/creators, is the easiest way to keep impact players on the floor and buy the starters some rest.

One thing to note: in each of those lineups, there are three constants: the two bench players (Norm should get most of the credit here, though good on Serge for having his poor game in such a fashion as not to tank his lineups) and OG Anunoby. As we touched on before the playoffs, quite often having Anunoby as a defensive difference maker in those bench units can really make them hum, which was part of why I was projecting him to be in the high thirties in minutes along with the three main ball handlers (Lowry, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam).

Returning to Ibaka’s poor production game, we noted last game when he scored well that so long as one of he and Norm are showing up with some offensive punch each game, the bench should be fine. In Game 2, we saw that clearly, with Norm’s showing being enough for the bench to not only survive Serge’s difficulty scoring (8 points on 3-of-9 shooting), but to also overcome the poor performance from the starters. Everything according to plan so far for the Raptors, in terms of that bench production.

Going Small

With nothing coming from the Raptors’ bigs in terms of production, and with the Nets switching defense rendering screens of little value, the Raptors put Powell on the court in Gasol’s usual place and ran a small lineup with Siakam and OG as the big men. This paid off particularly well on defense, as they snuffed out the Jarrett Allen-centric actions including one very nice play where OG and Siakam guarded the pick-and-roll between Caris LeVert and Allen, and Siakam timed the deflection on the lob attempt perfectly. The Raptors still had trouble scoring against those switches with the small-ball lineup, but that’s the sort of defensive play only two elite defenders can pull off, stopping that action without requiring any third player to help tag the roller.

With all the juggling going on due to the ineffectiveness of the starting lineup, Toronto’s small lineup to close ended up being the second most used lineup in the game — despite just a 5-minute sample. They held the Nets to 75 points per 100 possessions and had a break even plus-minus even though they played one more defensive possession than offensive one, protecting the lead the bench had built midway through the fourth quarter and closing out the game. Ideally you want your closers to pull ahead down the stretch, but beggers can’t be choosers and this unit did enough to get the win.

Even more impressive: that lineup had never played together during the regular season. Siakam did see about 180 minutes playing as the nominal centre during the regular season — just with different players around him (usually with Hollis-Jefferson at the 4) — and played to a +4.5 point differential per 100 possessions. So it’s not the most effective look but it is functional when needed. A smaller sample removing the RHJ lineups gives a very nice +10.7 point differential per 100 possessions in about 50 minutes played. Prepare to see this look again if small ball is ever called for.

All Downhill

This game was the Nets’ shot to make this a competitive series. The Raptors:

  • got one of the worst games of Marc Gasol’s career;
  • had their starters play to -11 in 14 minutes (despite being one of the best lineups in the league this year, 4th in net rating among all lineups over 300 minutes);
  • shot 67 percent from the free throw line;
  • shot 26 percent from three; and
  • allowed Garrett Temple to shoot 5-of-11 from three and score 21 points (he scored more than 20 points only three times this season in spite of averaging 28 minutes per game over 62 appearances).

And yet the Raptors won. If the Raptors shot their typical free throw percentage and only 31 percent from three, they would have won by 14 points. If they hit their usual percentages across the board, they win by 20. That sort of assumption is a little silly — the Nets were doing what they could to disrupt the “usual” for Toronto — but it shows what direction to expect regression to occur in.

Throw on top of that the news that Joe Harris had to leave the bubble after the game for a non-medical personal emergency, and the Nets are even thinner than they started out. As hopeless as it seemed for the Nets after last game, this next one might be even worse.

Still, it will hardly be a cakewalk to a sweep for Toronto. The Nets showed they can throw some curveballs at the Raptors that could make things more difficult than they were in Game 1. So don’t expect the Raptors to be able to buy a lot of rest for themselves or anything. But the series does feel entirely inevitable now, especially with no home court for the Nets to go back to for Games 3 and 4.

All stats per