One of the most interesting things to monitor over the course of a playoff series is how coaches and teams adjust to each other as the games and days go on.
Between the Raptors and Nets, each team has found a way to make a successful adjustment so far. The Nets went home to Brooklyn for Games 3 and 4 knowing that they needed to address the mammoth 97-67 rebounding advantage that the Raptors held through the first two games, and while their small lineup will always leave them vulnerable on the glass, they were able to at least even things out, getting outrebounded 78-72 between Games 3 and 4.
The Nets obviously have more of a game plan than just ‘grab more rebounds,’ and their defensive trapping of DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors’ other guards has proven effective for large chunks of the series, but they went from allowing the Raptors to grab 59 percent of available rebounds and 48.2 percent of offensive boards in the first two games to just 52 percent of total rebounds and 22.4 percent of offensive boards in the last two, and that’s something.
For the Raptors, their main concern through three games – other than the 54 turnovers they had committed (They turned it over just 10 times in Game 4) – was finding a way to contain Joe Johnson. While Brooklyn’s small lineup left them obviously vulnerable on the glass against Toronto’s more traditional units that feature two bigs, the size of the three guards they start in Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston and Joe Johnson is a matchup problem for Toronto’s 1-3 of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.
Johnson, especially, had become a nightmare for the Raptors, as neither DeRozan nor Ross could keep the bigger guard out of the paint, where he then proceeded to dominate, as his shot charts for the first three games of the series will tell you:
Through three games, Johnson was averaging 23.7 points on 60 percent shooting, and those prolific, efficient numbers were thanks in large part to the fact that Iso Joe could get into the paint whenever he wanted. Landry Fields and John Salmons defended him well when given the chance, but the lack of offensive upside that comes with having one of Fields or Salmons on the floor doesn’t allow much room for error.
In Game 4, however, the Raptors finally slowed Johnson (7 points on 2/7 shooting) by sending aggressive double-teams and sometimes even triple-teams his way. That sounds simple enough, but sending extra defenders to one player leaves defenses vulnerable to open shots coming from somewhere else, particularly when the opponent was a top-11 three-point shooting team (at 36.9%) in the regular season, as the Nets were.
As Kenny Smith broke down during TNT’s Game 4 halftime report, however, the Raptors did a phenomenal job of not only getting extra defenders to Johnson quickly, but also then recovering to close down the space on perimeter shooters:
That was just one look from the first half, but the Raptors helped and recovered off of Johnson all night on Sunday, with only a few lapses here and there.
A look at NBA.com’s player tracking data for the series also gives us an idea of how effective the Raptors’ Game 4 game plan was, as they didn’t necessarily limit Johnson’s touches, but they certainly limited what he was able to do once he got the ball in his hands:
|1||61||24 pts on 13 FGA||42|
|2||49||18 pts on 13 FGA||33|
|3||55||29 pts on 17 FGA||34|
|4||50||7 pts on 7 FGA||38|
Johnson’s field goal attempts and efficiency were way down, while he was passing the ball on a greater percentage of his touches than he had in any other game during the series so far. Again, that can be dangerous if the shooters he’s finding out of double-teams start knocking down shots, but between missing some good, open looks on their own and the Raptors’ perimeter defense, the Nets have converted just 25 percent of their three-point attempts through four games, the worst mark of any playoff team.
Thanks to their finally finding a way to contain Johnson, the Raptors were able to take Game 4 in Brooklyn and now come back to Toronto with home court advantage in a best-of-three series. If they can continue to keep the Nets’ three-point shooting down and can find a way to replicate their Game 4 containment of Johnson, where they consistently forced the ball out of the seven-time All-Star’s hands, they should like their chances going forward.
For Johnson, Jason Kidd and the Nets, the onus is now back on them to make their own adjustments – like having Johnson receive the ball in more advantageous spots and getting more ball movement out of the double-teams – in Game 5.