Dwane Casey is in his third year as Toronto’s head coach. He finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting and has a career winning percentage of .451. Casey previously coached under Rick Carlisle in Dallas and has been credited with introducing defensive schemes that helped the Mavericks win their first NBA championship in 2011. Casey left for Toronto the next year and brought his defensive mentality and expertise with him. This is his first trip to the postseason at the helm of an NBA coaching staff.
Jason Kidd is a rookie head coach who netted the job with Brooklyn days after announcing his retirement as a player. He played the last 19 seasons in the NBA, was a 10-time All-Star and won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks under Casey’s coaching for three seasons. Now the two are coaching against each other in a best-of-seven playoff series.
“When Jason was in Dallas, we used to talk a lot about defensive coverages, his thoughts on how we were guarding things, what we wanted to do with certain situations,” Casey said. “He had great insight into a lot of stuff.”
Casey said the Mavericks coaching staff sought to get Kidd on board with their game plan and that he helped sell it to the rest of the players. During these discussions, Casey listened to Kidd’s feedback and ideas. “He had a great basketball mind when he was playing.”
As a coach, Kidd struggled initially. The Nets got off to a slow start this season: despite having the league’s most expensive roster, they placed 26th with a 10-21 record at the end of 2013. They picked things up in the new year, going 34-17 the rest of the way (second best in the East) and leapfrogging several teams to finish sixth. Kidd ranked 10th in COTY voting and deserves a lot of credit for the team’s turnaround. He has learned how to coach the team and has shaped the roster into a unit that reflects who he was as a basketball player. All of his players have bought in to his style of play. Kidd has effectively put his stamp on the team as one that plays small ball, shares the ball well and forces turnovers.
“[Kidd] was way ahead of the curve as far as ideas and different schemes that he would like to try,” Casey said. “You knew he thought like a coach as a player and so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing a good job with this team.” Kidd won two of six Eastern Conference Coach of the Month awards given during the regular season, one more than Casey.
Kidd has outcoached Casey so far in the postseason. The Nets took the first game of the series. Paul Pierce scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to help secure a 94-87 victory over the Raptors. Joe Johnson and Deron Williams added 24 points apiece. Kidd said his decision to slide Pierce to power forward and Johnson to small forward helped. He recognized Johnson has the size and strength advantage over everyone the Raptors have at that position. Kidd trusted Johnson to post up and make the right decisions in the paint while being guarded by a smaller player.
Defensively, Kidd’s main objective has been to prevent DeMar DeRozan from beating the Nets. The veteran team succeeded in Game 1 by forcing Toronto’s All-Star to try to create for himself with a defender glued to him. DeRozan finished with 14 points on 3-13 shooting. In addition to quieting Toronto’s top scorer, Brooklyn has not let the Raptors get into their passing and three-point game. The Nets have disrupted Toronto’s ball movement on the perimeter and subsequently their flow on offence.
The Raptors were the eighth best team in avoiding turnovers during the regular season, committing only 13.7 per game to Brooklyn’s 14.4. The Nets have since smothered the Raptors in this series, forcing them to commit 19.7 turnovers per game. 19.7. For every assist Toronto records, they turn the ball over. They have had fewer opportunities to shoot the ball—10 fewer field goal attempts per game compared to the regular season—and haven’t made up for it by scoring more efficiently. The Raptors shot 37.2 per cent (seventh) from beyond the arc during the regular season. That figure has plummeted to 27.9 per cent so far in the postseason.
With all that said, the Raptors could have won Game 1. Brooklyn missed 20 three-pointers, Mason Plumlee and Shaun Livingston were in foul trouble for the entire game, Garnett was a washed-up trash-talking pylon and Kidd didn’t give Andrei Kirilenko any burn despite the fact that the rest of his bench was ice cold. Never mind that AK47 is a long, pesky defender who can clean up at the rim. However, the Raptors did not capitalize on these errors. Casey is partially responsible for dropping the ball with his questionable player substitutions and lineups.
All players who were suited up for the game saw the floor, with the exception of the player who can best guard Brooklyn’s veteran wings. To Casey’s credit, he limited Terrence Ross’ minutes when he realized the sophomore’s debut was not going to be one for the ages. However, Casey should have done the same to DeRozan who went 0-5 and turned the ball over in the first nine minutes of the game before getting pulled. The coaching staff continued to ride DeRozan despite his struggles. Casey’s strategy for dealing with postseason first-timers like Ross and DeRozan is informing them of what they can expect. He says that’s really all he can do, and it’s up to them to go out and play. “It’s about rhythm, comfort level. It’s about having a feel for the game, the physicality of it. [Ross] has to go through it.”
It boggles the mind why Casey insisted on giving spot minutes to frosty Tyler Hansbrough, Nando De Colo and Chuck Hayes only to yank them before they broke a sweat. The minutes would have been better spent on playing Patrick Patterson more and Hansbrough or Hayes (rather one than both) to replace the injured Amir Johnson. “We all can play better. I can coach better,” Casey admitted after the game. “We can all do a better job in a lot of different areas.”
In Game 2, Kidd remembered Kirilenko is on his roster and let him play. The Russian forward used his length to bother the Raptors and had a knack for getting his hands on the ball. He pulled down three boards (two offensive) and recorded four steals in 19 minutes off the bench. Kidd is confident going 11 players deep every game. Part of it is limiting Garnett’s minutes and seeing if any of his streaky shooters (Alan Anderson, Marcus Thornton) are feeling it.
Meanwhile, Casey adjusted his team’s defence, spacing and offensive attack. He declared his team will focus on rotating quickly, understanding where Brooklyn’s three-point shooters are and not giving their opponents any open looks. Toronto’s sideline general said his team cannot stop everything the Nets do, so they decided to hone in on taking away the three. Kidd had the same goal in mind. The teams combined to shoot 23 per cent from three-point territory.
While Kidd told his squad to continue putting pressure on DeRozan and giving him a tough time, Casey implored his team to make a conscious effort to get their starting shooting guard open looks early on. The fifth-year Raptor playing in his first playoffs series rose to the occasion. He shot 9-21 from the field and 12-14 from the free throw line, finishing with a game-high 30 points.
Casey tightened up his rotation from a dozen players in Game 1 to just eight in Game 2. He gave Landry Fields some burn and boy did it ever pay off. While he didn’t contribute on offence, he did a better job than any of his teammates containing Brooklyn’s Johnson. As a collective, Toronto’s eight-man rotation made their shots (except for those from long range), obliterated the Nets on the glass and sunk their free throws down the stretch to seal the 100-95 victory on home court and tie the series.
Following the game, Casey noted the rotation isn’t set in stone. He says he’s taking it game by game. “The next game it may be 12 or 13 guys,” said Casey. He needs to continue to take advantage of his team’s size in individual match-ups. Keeping Jonas Valanciunas and Johnson at the five and four spots, while sliding the 6-foot-9 Patterson to the three gives the Raptors a better shot than trying to play small ball with a team that thrives playing that style. It would behoove Casey to force the Nets to adjust and try to play Toronto’s game, but this doesn’t appear to be on his clipboard. Prior to Game 3, Casey said he was looking to make subtle lineup changes based on matchups.
Casey said his team was going to focus on taking care of the ball. Some of Toronto’s turnovers from the first two games were due to the tempo, while the rest came as a result of attempts to drive through the middle as Brooklyn’s defenders actively reached in for the ball. Rather than trying to make a squeeze play in pick-and-roll situations, the Raptors need to make simple plays and be stronger with the ball, Casey said. DeRozan has been doing a tremendous job drawing contact and fouls. He currently leads the league in free throw attempts with 37 in three playoff games.
The Raptors trailed by as many as 15 points midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3. They mounted a comeback by driving inside and getting to the line, but ultimately could not get over the hump. The Nets protected home court, winning 102-98. Casey blamed his team for coughing up the ball (Nets scored 16 points off 19 turnovers), their inability to match Brooklyn’s physicality and the officiating. He said he loves the fight his team showed and commended their efforts in making the match interesting down the stretch.
Moving forward, Casey said he will shift his focus to moving the ball without turning it over and not relying as heavily on isolation plays. On the other end, he intends to get the Raptors to do a better job rotating and playing man-to-man defence on Paul Pierce and Deron Williams. Casey called out his squad, saying they need productivity from one more position in this series. If neither Ross, Fields, nor Salmons can do anything in the next game, expect to find a Craigslist ad for a wing who can guard Johnson one-on-one: Will pay extra for someone who can provide scoring punch.
Toronto enlisted Casey to transform the Raptors into an elite defensive and rebounding team. The players have proven they can hang with the best in that regard. They’ve bought into their coach’s gritty, hard-nosed, rock-pounding philosophy. However, the team’s playoff inexperience, inconsistent offence and uncharacteristic turnovers may cost them the series. It isn’t over yet. The battle on the hardwood continues.