After two games, the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets are tied at one game apiece in this best-of-seven series. With F-bombs being dropped by GM’s, hip-hop radio stations from rivaling cities trading barbs, tabloids with front-page puns and end-to-end action on the court, this series has proved to be nothing short of entertaining.
The first game saw the Raptors climbing themselves out of a first-quarter hole to engage in a seesaw battle of sorts, all the while having shot clock issues throughout the second half and a stubborn Paul Pierce showing his “dinosaur” power late in the fourth, when he scored nine of his fifteen game points. However, game two was a wake-up call for NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who made his presence felt after being virtually absent in the previous game. With all of this transpiring and more, let’s take a look at what worked, what didn’t and what adjustments need to be made once Toronto crosses the Brooklyn Bridge tomorrow.
Photo: USA Today
The Raptors need to defend the three-point line
Let’s keep in mind that the Nets shot an abysmal 4-for-24 from downtown in game one, but that improved to 7-for-24 in game two. The fact that they hit the shots successfully is not the greatest cause for concern, but more so the way they did it. Brooklyn either left a man open on the wing, or saved their focus for a crucial moment later in the game. Opportunities to shoot a three would open up for the Nets because their opposing players were losing track of their assignments on screens. The Raptors will have to adjust this behaviour if they hope to stand a chance in this particular series.
After game two, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that his men will need to “continue to rotate quickly, to understand where their three-point shooters are, continue to get to them quickly and not get sucked into some of the plays that [they] did].” This scenario plays out all too often for Toronto. In game two, it would become most apparent when the Nets consistently found Mirza Teletovic open beyond the arc, from where he’d knock down 3-for-6. Look for this to be corrected by the Raps in game three.
DeMar DeRozan must get started early
At 22.9 points per game, DeRozan was tied for ninth during the regular season among leading scorers, but was only able to score 14 points in game one following a slow start. Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that he felt game one’s early foul trouble bothered DeRozan. The majority of DeRozan’s buckets ended up coming from the charity stripe, from where he went 8-for-8. He was 3-for-13 from the field overall. In game two, however, DeMar picked up the pace and blossomed into one of the more prolific scorers of this playoffs season. He torched the Nets for 30 points on 9-for-21 shooting from the field and 12-for-14 from the line.
Getting DeRozan started early will almost certainly ensure victory for the Raps, which is why it’s important for him to get the looks he needs and rotations to be made when double teams are forming. Above all, it’s essential that DeRozan becomes the go-to-guy for this squad during crunch time as he has the ability to drive to the paint at will and knock down the 18-footers. In game two’s tense fourth quarter, he did just that after bouncing back from a visibly-upsetting fifth foul call to clinch the win for Toronto. After helping carry the team to a win in the fourth quarter, the humble DeRozan said that his teammates do look to him for leadership at times, but that’s beside the point.
“The crazy thing about our team is it could be Kyle Lowry, it could be Greivis [Vasquez], J.V. [Jonas Valanciunas], Amir [Johnson],” said DeRozan. “That’s the crazy thing about our team, we have trust in every single person on this team to carry us to victory.”
While the Raptors’ crunch-time cooperation has been proven in the past, DeRozan will be called upon to close out fourth quarters more often than any other player as the Raptors’ leading scorer, which will most likely mean that he has the hot hand.
Amir Johnson has to score in double digits
No one is asking Amir Johnson to dominate the paint with astronomical numbers, but having him on the board in double figures makes a world of a difference. This should be a primary focus for him especially now that he has Paul Pierce defending him, which should otherwise favor him in the paint in terms of a mismatch. In game one, Johnson was almost a non-factor, shooting 1-for-2 from the field. Game two was different as night and day, with Johnson shooting more robust 8-10 from the field.
Johnson’s lengthier and more athletic than your typical power forward, so he should use that to his advantage going forward. Pierce will look to get him in foul trouble with his ability to stretch the floor, and that has proven to be effective thus far. Johnson simply must be cautious of how much coverage he gives Pierce on the defensive end and, if necessary, should switch his assignment with another teammate. Either way, having Johnson in foul trouble will affect the Raptors’ interior scoring as most of the burden will be placed upon Valanciunas in that scenario.
Toronto needs to dial back the turnovers
This is by far the biggest issue of the series thus far for the Raptors in victory or defeat. They need to protect the basketball.
“We got the kinks out, the playoffs atmosphere… all that stuff is to the side,” said Casey after game one. “Now we got to come back and clean up the 19 turnovers. That was the biggest issue, the turnovers.”
Throughout the regular season, they were one of the best teams when it came to protecting the rock. In the postseason, they have turned over the ball at a horrendous rate, leading to easy points on the other end for Brooklyn. In game one, Toronto turned over 19 balls, netting the Nets 17 points. In game two (despite the win), 21 turnovers were made, again leading to 17 easy points for Brooklyn. This will not cut it in the playoffs down the road. They need to ensure that every possession is handled carefully.
Crossing the Brooklyn bridge
The Raptors have been putting in a gutsy effort thus far, and will have a real shot at winning the series if they mitigate their weaknesses.
With first-time playoffs jitters aside, they should prepare to enter an especially hostile environment in New York State. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s F-bomb-laden cussing out of the opposing team will not have made the trip any easier, nor will Drake’s taunting of Shawn Carter AKA Jay Z, a stakeholder in the Brooklyn Nets. However, a northern uprising is still a strong possibility.
“Earlier in the year, we said we wanted to be the Freddy Kruger of the NBA… not give up, not give in. I think our guys have done that,” said coach Casey after game two. “Next game is going to be tougher, we know that. They’re going to come out with guns a-blazing. We gotta go there and be ready for the fight.”