The Raptors eked out a Game 2 win, surviving horrible perimeter shooting, a rough afternoon at the free throw line, and an early 14-point deficit. Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn promised some tweaks after Game 1, and boy, did he and the Nets deliver. The move to start Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot did not come as a surprise, but Jarret Allen’s upgraded use as a screen-setter gave the Raptors a headache.
In response, coach Nick Nurse rolled out a masterpiece defensive scheme to contain Caris LeVert. First, he did an excellent job experimenting on ways to keep Marc Gasol on the floor; and then when it was time to win, he picked the right players to close the game.
It was counter after counter for both teams. For example, Vaughn chose to abandon the zone and drop coverages that enabled Fred VanVleet to go off in Game 1. So Nurse had VanVleet take the ball to the rack, or had Gasol roll hard to create a momentary opening for jumper or three.
Let’s look at a few of the strategies employed in Game 2 and what potential adjustments to expect for Game 3.
Running Gasol Off the Floor
Marc Gasol was a significant factor in helping contain LeVert in Game 1. He provided his teammates support by trapping Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll actions and helping to double-team LeVert on the block. However, the second half of Game 1 exposed Gasol’s weakness, and Vaughn and the Nets made him look unplayable in Game 2 as a result.
On defense, the Nets switched from zone plus Jarrett Allen’s drop coverage to mostly switch-heavy man-to-man defense. The Nets had to respect for Gasol as a scoring threat, but they are OK with getting their smaller guys on him, even if it’s in the post.
Offensively, the Nets had some counters ready in Game 2 for how the Raptors used Gasol on defense. Allen is Brooklyn’s key pick-setter, but previously sometimes he was disappearing from the play. This time, he was much more active in either rolling to the basket or moving to an open spot in the middle to provide LeVert with an out for a short pass in case he could not get past multiple defenders.
When Gasol attempts to double LeVert on the block, Allen would immediately move to the open spot in the middle. Both situations would create the same effect as a drive-and-kick. With Allen open, he can be a threat for an easy layup, and when the Raptors collapsed on him, he was able to identify the open shooters around the perimeter. It’s also worth noting that since the insertion of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the second half of Game 1, Gasol have had a hard time rotating to the spaced-out Nets players, causing his teammates to “play the middle” and be a step late to where the pass went.
In response, the Raptors tried to hide Gasol by taking him off Allen. They also tried to go man-to-man, putting him on Luwawu-Cabarrot. But the Nets just targeted Gasol by attacking him on the perimeter, with Luwawu Cabarrot just driving around him. Another option for the Raptors was their implementation of a 1-2-2 zone, with Gasol filling the bottom slot. In this configuration, however, the off-ball shooters would run to his area, taking advantage of Gasol’s slower reaction time. In this scenario too, Allen’s rolls to the basket left Gasol on an island, as Allen’s quickness was just a bit too much.
Shutting Down LeVert
Fred VanVleet got the first crack defending LeVert, and the Raptors were comfortable with his single coverage, especially if he’s kept out on the perimeter. Gasol’s help in the pick-and-roll coverage helped get the ball out of LeVert’s hands, but it had cascading bad results for Toronto at times.
So then, OG Anunoby also got the task to harass LeVert, playing him straight up. Often times, when Allen provided a screen, Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam switched to LeVert. It got to a point later in the game — when the Raptors went small with Siakam at the 5 — when seeing Allen coming in for a pick was just not as useful for the Nets. LeVert was getting switched from OG to Siakam, and often gave up on the attack as a result.
The Raptors collapsed on LeVert’s drives, particularly when too many of Brooklyn’s non-shooters were on the floor. Later in the game, OG started picking up LeVert at fullcourt, which often pushed him right out of the play.
In isolations situations, OG and Siakam would play LeVert straight up, with their teammates sagging just enough from their respective zone areas to be able to contest on a kick out. Against smaller defenders like VanVleet, the Raptors would then pack the paint, forcing LeVert into a tough contested midrange jumper.
I'd be scared too if I see OG and Siakam ready to jump on me pic.twitter.com/HsBu3AlX5A— JD Q *Education Reform Over Everything* (@jdkeyrants) August 21, 2020
The Raptors’ zone defense against LeVert’s pick-and-roll actions when Gasol was on the floor were decent enough to force him to give up the ball, but the succeeding plays got the Raptors in trouble.
The goal for the Raptors is to get the ball out of LeVert’s hands, and if that’s not doable on the play, the next best thing is not to let him close to the basket. The Raptors’ defenders met him closer to the midrange than waiting for him at the rim.
For the Raptors:
Start Serge Ibaka
We are accustomed to seeing Gasol being passive offensively. However, his inability to keep up with smaller and quicker Nets players almost makes it hard to justify keeping him as a starter in this Brooklyn series. Now, obviously, the “good” version of Gasol is a defensive dynamo, but he may not be the best player to use for long stretches in this series. And keep in mind, he has shared starting duties with Ibaka in the past. What’s more, Ibaka has shown enough quickness to keep up with the Nets’ shifty guards.
Inserting Ibaka into the starting lineup gives the Raptors’ better scoring options and some more mobile rim protection. It would also allow Gasol to grind it out against the Nets’ bench players.
Play Terence Davis
I thought Terence Davis played well enough in Game 1 to warrant another look in Game 2. Instead, we saw Matt Thomas, who had an uneventful five-minute run. Meanwhile, VanVleet played a game high 43 minutes, playing the entire second half.
With the Nets down another player, the Raptors should be able to overwhelm the next couple of games without taxing their key players too much. To do that, Davis could be a factor.
For the Nets:
The Raptors had a successful defensive game plan against LeVert. However, it’s still not foolproof. If LeVert can get downhill quick in transition, he’ll be hard to stop. And if he can get Gasol or Ibaka on an island, he has to like his chances if there is no double team coming his way.
The Raptors defense focuses on LeVert with the ball in his hands. There may be an opportunity for him to find easier ways to score by moving off the ball. He’s got significant height advantage over VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, and there might be an opening for him to get the ball as a cutter amid the attention of the Nets’ drive-and-kick game. Of course, having LeVert off the ball would mean that either Chris Chiozza or Tyler Johnson has to be on the floor (as all Garrett Temple does with the ball is roll it off his feet — zing!).
Joe Harris’ Replacement
Right after the game, news spread that Joe Harris had left the Bubble to attend to a non-medical personal matter. On this note, we hope everything is OK with Harris and his family. That said, a Bubble exit means a guaranteed minimum of two games missed due to the testing/quarantining rules the NBA has established.
Harris’ departure leaves the Nets with a big hole in their starting lineup and rotation. While the Raptors’ defensive game plan focuses on stopping LeVert at the point of attack, the defending champs have kept Harris in check for the most part. Still, his gravity as a shooter puts a lot of pressure on the Raptors’ defense — and that will be sorely missed for Brooklyn.
Replace-Net #1: Rodions Kurucs
Kurucs started Game 1 for the Nets, which was a disaster, as he fouled out in 16 minutes. He had a remarkable improvement in Game 2, coming off the bench and only committing one foul — but the Raptors still targetted him anyway. Kurucs does bring size, length, and quickness, but unfortunately not much else to the starting lineup. Still, he may be the only option left for the Nets, and he has been known to hit a shot or two from time to time.
Replace-Net #2: Lance Thomas
The Nets signed Lance Thomas as a substitute player, and he was their starting power forward early on in the seeding games. He lost his starting spot in the latter half of those games and has mostly seen garbage time since then.
The Nets will need someone to defend Siakam, and Thomas might be the only other player they have with enough size and length to keep up. Once again, however, the eye test suggests Thomas is a liability for the Nets. Remember, there’s a reason his minutes were cut as Brooklyn went along in the Bubble.
Replace-Net #3: Tyler Johnson
By inserting Johnson to the starting lineup, the Nets could go ultra-small, shifting Luwawu-Cabarrot to the small forward spot in place of Harris. Vaughn experimented with Johnson in the starting lineup during their seeding games, and he looked decent. He’s a streaky shooter, but he at least gives the Nets a replacement threat as someone who can score off the bounce too.
The downside to moving Johnson into the starting lineup: the Nets will be almost totally devoid of scoring off the bench. Especially when considering some of the other options: Justin Anderson, Donta Hall, and Dzanan Musa