The Toronto Raptors will play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2020 NBA playoffs. The Nets are essentially a band of strangers, as COVID-19 and long-term injuries sidelined just about every recognizable name on the roster. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and Spencer Dinwiddie will all be watching from home.
Having said that, the Nets won’t go down without a fight. Brooklyn won five of its eight seeding games, including victories over the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers, and they finished second in assists among all teams inside the bubble. Although they are comically shorthanded, the Nets are fast, play together and carry themselves with confidence. Even if the Raptors take the series quickly, it will still be a hard-fought effort.
Here’s four things to know about Raptors-Nets:
Pascal Siakam should feast
Siakam’s struggles were a running theme throughout the seeding games, as he averaged 17 points on 39 percent shooting while recording as many turnovers as assists. Outside of a 26-point performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was a struggle for Siakam to establish his rhythm. With Kawhi Leonard gone, the expectation is for Siakam to fill in as the go-to scorer, and it’s mildly concerning that he looks so rusty.
This series against the Nets is an opportunity for Siakam to get right. Brooklyn has a very obvious weakness on defence, and it’s on the wing. They lack a defensive stopper to compete with the premium point forwards in the league, and it was evident inside the bubble. Leonard had 39, while Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 7-of-8 and finished with 16 points in the first half before resting thereafter. Against the Celtics, each one of Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown had 18 or more.
Siakam should have his way against Brooklyn. Their top choice to guard Siakam will be Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot, who is short two inches and 30 pounds against Siakam. Their next-best option is Caris LeVert, who is scrappy and strong for his frame, but again is woefully undersized. Physically frail reserves like Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs won’t fare much better.
Because they are so small, the Nets will double Siakam with regularity. The Raptors should try to establish him in the post, draw the help, and use their passing to create an open look. They won’t need to use Siakam as much on the perimeter, where he is also capable. Oddly enough, it’s not the jumpshot that is the problem for Siakam. He’s shooting 36 percent from deep on six attempts per game, which is exactly where he stood before the shutdown. The issue is that Siakam seemed to lose his touch around the basket.
With all due respect to the Nets, the goal for Siakam should be to reestablish his confidence and rhythm for the second round and beyond. Everything so far looks to be a bit loose — his jumpers are missing at odd angles, his handle isn’t compact — and that will need to change when the Raptors run into more formidable defences. Their second round opponent will likely be the Boston Celtics, who finished the year as the fourth-best defence in the league. Siakam needs to be as sharp as possible heading into that series.
Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen run a slick two-man game
Brooklyn’s leading scorer is LeVert, who earned second-team honours inside the bubble. LeVert is very talented as a scorer, but the Nets’ best offence has actually come from the two-man game between sharpshooter Joe Harris and lob target Jarrett Allen.
Harris has been doing his best Klay Thompson impersonation in the restart, scoring 20 points per game on 62 percent shooting from the field and 54 percent from deep. He’s not your average standstill shooter who just waits in the corner or comes around the occasional screen — Harris is showing that he’s a versatile scorer who can hit from everywhere. Harris is launching six threes per game, same as before the shutdown, but the uptick in his scoring is in the midrange and around the basket. Harris is catching defenders off guard by driving past the closeout and either stopping on a dime for the free-throw line jumper, or getting all the way to the hoop where he is a strong finisher despite not being particularly athletic. Harris stands 6-foot-6 and has good touch around the basket to finish at odd angles.
Harris is especially dangerous in tandem with Allen. The closest comparison would be how Joel Embiid and J.J. Redick used to operate with the Philadelphia 76ers. They split defence apart by pulling in opposite directions, with a lethal shooter in Harris stretching to the arc, while the 7-foot Allen drags defenders to him with the lob threat. Most of the Nets’ best plays sees Harris pitching the ball to Allen, reading the play, and taking what the defence gives them from there.
Allen is not your average roll man. He’s also a fairly clever passer, especially in finding the backdoor cutter. Defences often sag off Allen because he can’t shoot, but the Nets specifically look to exploit that space either by having Harris come off screens to shoot with no help defender in the picture, or by using that space for Allen to pick out passers.
Fortunately, the Raptors are well equipped to guard this action given their experience with Redick and Embiid last season. Marc Gasol is a master at pressuring on the perimeter, while also not giving up anything open in the paint. The Raptors can also assign either Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet on Harris on the perimeter. Although Harris would have the height advantage, the Raptors should be able to pressure him on the ball and force turnovers since Harris isn’t much of a dribbler.
It would be great if Marc Gasol could score
“Skinny Marc” hasn’t really delivered an uptick in scoring as many had hoped for. Gasol averaged seven points in 21 minutes per game inside the bubble, and played the same role of recycling possessions as a screener and playmaker outside the three-point arc. He looked more balanced on his loopy turnaround jumpers out of the post, but those remain infrequent, about one or two every night.
This isn’t a series where the Raptors need Gasol to score, as there will be enough gaps in the defence for Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet, and Norman Powell to attack. But it would be nice if Gasol could capitalize, especially from outside the arc. Based on how the Nets guarded in the season series, they will have their centre dropped back deep inside the paint, which leaves Gasol open for the shot if he wants to take it. Gasol had his second-highest scoring output of the season (17) in his one and only outing against the Nets, and most of his success came on open threes. Gasol also has a significant size advantage against Allen, and there is the option to pummel him in the post.
This is also a good chance for Serge Ibaka to rediscover his form. Ibaka struggled mightily in the seeding games, averaging eight points on 42 percent shooting as the anchor of the second unit. The Nets don’t even really have a backup centre, with 6-foot-9 undrafted rookie Donta Hall as the reserve, and Ibaka should have his way. In four regular season meeting, Ibaka averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds against Brooklyn, and that was when they still had Jordan to match him.
Put OG Anunoby on Caris LeVert
LeVert is enjoying life as a No. 1 option, with averages of 25 points, five rebounds, and seven assists. His breakout moment was in their eighth game, when LeVert matched Damian Lillard shot for shot as part of a stellar 37-point, nine-assist performance that threatened to keep the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers out of the playoffs.
LeVert has always been a talented scorer, and he’s not doing anything new besides taking more shots. Raptors fans will remember his 37-point outburst in February that threatened to end Toronto’s 15-game win streak, one in which LeVert led a furious comeback before he was stopped by OG Anunoby on the final possession. When Brooklyn finally beat the Raptors a few days later, LeVert led the way with 20 points and four steals.
What makes LeVert special is his physicality and aggressiveness. He’s great at getting downhill to the basket, with or without a screen. Once he gets penetration, LeVert is tough to stop. He’s tricky with the handle and can attack going left or right, he’s clever with his fakes and his footwork, he’ll mix it up with a healthy dose of midrange pull-ups to go with a steady diet of hard drives to the rim, and most of all, he’s very strong for his size. LeVert makes a living by bumping into his man, freezing the defender to get his shot off, or drawing the contact and getting to the line.
For this reason, the Raptors should assign Anunoby to LeVert. Right away, it neutralizes most of his advantages. Anunoby is two inches taller and has 30 pounds on LeVert, so he’ll be able to hold his ground on LeVert’s bully-ball rushes to the rim. Anunoby also has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and will be able to contest most of LeVert’s jumpers. Anunoby’s strength will also deter LeVert from posting up on the left block, where he is dangerous as a face-up threat similar to DeMar DeRozan.
LeVert might wriggle free a few times because he’s quicker, but Anunoby should be fine so long as he eventually gets back into the play. LeVert has never been a great three-point shooter (26 percent in the bubble, 34 percent for his career) and it’s a win for the defence if he settles for outside shots. Where he becomes dangerous is when he draws a third defender to him at the basket, because LeVert also has the awareness to find the open shooter when help defenders close in.
With all due respect to the Nets, they just don’t have the firepower to pull off an upset. They can get hot from deep and steal a game because they share the ball and have willing shooters on the wing, but the Raptors are too experienced and have far too much size for the Nets to beat. Prediction: Raptors in 5.
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