5 Adjustments the Brooklyn Nets Must Make to Close Out Toronto Raptors
This development is exciting, but it's not terribly surprising. Many pundits picked this series to go at least six games, and there was no consensus favorite going in.
Despite the even nature of the series so far, the Nets can tip the final two or three games in their favor with some prudent adjustments. Here are five changes that Brooklyn should adopt to finish off the Raptors.
Improve Defensive Rebounding
The Nets are a bad rebounding team, so it's not much of a shocker that Toronto is winning the battle of the boards through the first four games of this series. The Raptors have grabbed 175 rebounds so far compared to the Nets' 139.
It's pointless to hope the Nets will suddenly metamorphose into a team capable of dominating the glass overnight. The team that finished 29th in rebound rate during the regular season won't redefine its interior presence in the playoffs, unless Charles Barkley flees the TNT halftime studio and starts snatching boards for the Nets like its 1987.
However, more subtle adjustments can be made, notably on the defensive end. The Raptors have gotten too many second-chance opportunities on offense that have allowed them to hang around in contests. In Game 2, which Brooklyn would lose by a mere five points, Toronto picked up 19 offensive rebounds.
Some of these rebounds are simply a function of poor communication or effort by Brooklyn. On multiple occasions in the first four games, two Nets have converged to grab a defensive board, disrupting each other's efforts, and fumbled the ball out of bounds or into a Raptor's hands.
Other times, it looks like everyone in black and white is simply waiting for someone else to do the dirty work—how else would Jonas Valanciunas grab his own rebound while sitting down in the paint? And while the trouble may start in the middle, the Nets' perimeter rebounders are also at fault, standing idle as Toronto guards dart in to grab long rebounds off the back iron.
This is a veteran team, one that you'd think would have mastered the art of yelling "Same!" or "Ball!" in order to avoid costly mix-ups and capable of giving maximum effort on the boards. If the Nets want to make the second round, they need to start crashing the boards with enthusiasm and communicating while they do it.
Rethink Crunch-Time Offense
For all the excitement surrounding Paul Pierce's takeover of the final few minutes of Game 1, the Nets have been downright awful late in the fourth quarter since.
The Nets had no field goals in the final five minutes of Game 3, as they almost squandered a 15-point lead, and no field goals in the final six minutes of Game 4. Mixed in those two intervals were five turnovers, two loose-ball fouls and four missed free throws. It's a small miracle that Brooklyn even won one of those games.
Here's one solution: Give the ball to Joe Johnson. Yes, Pierce is the Hall of Famer with dozens of big-time shots under his belt. But throughout the season, Johnson has been the one carrying this team late in the fourth quarter.
Plus, he's a safe bet for a number of reasons. First of all, he holds on to the ball. His turnover percentage this season (9.8 percent) was far lower than that of Deron Williams (15.0 percent), Paul Pierce (15.3 percent) and Shaun Livingston (15.5 percent).
His go-to move, a methodical backdown of an undersized defender, not only protects the basketball, but also slows down the game and eats up seconds, keeping the Raptors from outrunning the Nets the other way. If he's double-teamed, then one of the Nets shooters will be open on the perimeter.
So enough weaving around half court, setting illegal picks and launching contested threes. Give it to Joe Cool and let him do the rest.
Stop Fouling DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is going to get his points on a nightly basis, and there's not much Brooklyn can do about it. Such is the nature of an elite scorer, a title DeRozan (22.7 points per game) earned this season. Great offense beats great defense every time.
The Nets are making it easier on DeRozan by frequently sending him to the free-throw line, though. DeRozan averaged 8.0 attempts from the stripe per game during the regular season, but he's already got 48 free throws through four games in this series.
There are two problems with this trend for the Nets. First of all, it's cheap points for the Raptors. DeRozan is a good free-throw shooter (82 percent for his career), and he's made 42 of those 48 in this series. With scoring at a premium in an old-fashioned, physical series, those points loom large.
The bigger problem is that it allows DeRozan to practice his stroke at the free-throw line and see the ball go through the net, which is always a potential catalyst for a jump-shooter. DeRozan isn't shooting very well at the moment—he's only made 17 of his 51 shots outside of the paint in the first four games, per Vorped.com—but Brooklyn is bailing him out with boneheaded fouls.
Not all of the blame is on the Nets. The entire series has been constantly punctuated by the officials' whistles, as it seems the refs are anticipating contact (especially in the paint) and calling fouls on relatively tame plays.
But the Nets aren't helping. The NBA is increasingly protecting jump-shooters, and refs are quick to penalize defenders for not allowing their opponents a safe landing space after they attempt a shot. Still, Brooklyn defenders are crowding DeRozan, undercutting him as he jumps without affecting his release and giving him a great opportunity for a three-point play.
So here's the prescription. Continue punishing DeRozan when he drives—make him think twice about taking the ball to the rim. But when he's outside, let him brick jumpers all night. Put a hand in his face but don't tap his elbow or hip check him on the way down. Make him prove that he can convert half his perimeter shots instead of sending him to the line.
Attack the Basket
Brooklyn's three-point shooting, a stalwart offensive weapon for the team all season, has gone cold. After draining 8.6 threes per game during the regular season on 37 percent shooting from outside—both above-average marks among the entire league—the Nets have made only 22 of their 88 attempts against Toronto.
Demanding that a team start sinking its perimeter attempts isn't really a viable suggestion, since sometimes shots simply aren't falling. The Nets are getting good looks, but just haven't been able to convert.
There is an adjustment to be made, though. If the Nets come out cold from beyond the arc in the remaining games, they shouldn't linger out there waiting for their strokes to warm up. Instead, they should abandon the three, preferably with some convincing pump-fakes, and attack the basket.
Why? Several reasons. First of all, they're penetrating the paint against the Raptors without too much resistance and subsequently converting inside often (81-of-135, according to Vorped.com). Many times in this series, Paul Pierce has slashed toward the rim and been rewarded with an uncontested layup.
Plus, as previously stated, the refs have demonstrated a low tolerance for contact so far in this series. Getting to the basket almost guarantees either a high-percentage shot or a trip to the line for two. It also increases the chances that the Raptors will be hindered by foul trouble late in the game and be forced to rely on their bench in the fourth quarter.
Most of Brooklyn's shooters aren't one-dimensional players. Pierce, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams can all find lanes on the dribble, and even guys such as Mirza Teletovic and Marcus Thornton are creative enough not to settle for outside shots. When the 25-footers aren't dropping, try something more straightforward, like a one-footer.
Put in Marcus Thornton
It appears that Jason Kidd has lost confidence in Marcus Thornton. After making only two of his 12 field-goal attempts through the first three games of the series, Thornton saw zero playing time in Game 4. For a team starving on offense, that decision may have been made too hastily.
Thornton is a classic streaky shooter. He may go through droughts here and there, but he can turn his night around with a single made jumper. In fact, on several occasions during the regular season, Thornton went on a scoring tear in the second half after putting up uninspiring numbers in the first.
To further the case for a bump in Thornton's minutes, his replacement, Alan Anderson, hasn't been a heavy contributor, either. Anderson is 5-of-15 from the floor in the series and 1-of-7 from three-point range. Some consider Anderson a better defender than Thornton (although certain metrics would indicate otherwise), but he hasn't done much to contain his assignment, DeMar DeRozan.
One of Kidd's strengths during the Nets' midseason revival was his trust in his bench. He spread minutes across the roster, not only keeping guys fresh but also capitalizing on the bench's wide range of talents. Some might not want Thornton on the court during a scenario calling for lockdown defense, but to sit him for the entirety of a game in which the Nets couldn't even break 80 points seems rash.
Even if his outside shots aren't falling, Thornton helps spread the Raptors thin on defense and runs the break better than the Nets' older, slower players. Kidd needs to reconsider his choice to leave Thornton out of the rotation.