The expected result of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets has been one of the more divisive topics going in the 2014 NBA Playoffs. Some people believe in the youth, nothing-to-lose attitude, and all-around better season that the Raps have had and have them as the favorite to win it, while others point hard and repeatedly at the experience and depth/payroll of the Nets and figure that the Dinos don’t stand a chance against their elders from Brooklyn.
Wherever you manage to find one pundit claiming that a Toronto win is a no-brainer, you’ll find someone else sitting right beside him or her saying that anyone with half a brain would pick Brooklyn. Eventually, one side of the argument will be right and the hindsight gloating may commence, but which team has the upper hand after two games?
The short answer? Neither.
Toronto’s Key Adjustment: Turnovers
Both teams have won a close game and they both have had glaring weaknesses they need to fix if they want to pull out this series. For Toronto, it’s all about turnovers. Through two games, the Raptors are averaging 20 turnovers per contest, losing the ball at a rate of 21.5 times per 100 possessions (up from a season average of 14.8, 10th best in the association). It’s no secret to anyone that turning the ball over more than once every five possessions is a recipe for disaster and the Raps will have to reign in those errors if they want to move on to the next round. The 17.0 points per game that the Nets are scoring off turnovers will bury them in no time if the trend continues.
So, what could turn this series around for Toronto? Less Terrence Ross, more Greivis Vasquez. Ross, a second-year player, should probably be given a bit of mercy for buckling under the pressure of the big stage that is the NBA Playoffs, but there’s no denying that he has been downright awful. Through two contests, he’s averaging 2.5 points per game and shooting .167 from the field and .111 from long range. That has led to a -7.3 PER, which, in case you’re wondering, is bad.
Vasquez, in the meantime, has been spectacular. His PER over two games is at 26.0, thanks to very efficient shooting (a .625 true shooting percentage) and the lowest turnover rate (7.1) of anyone playing significant minutes for the Raptors. Every five-man lineup that has Vasquez in it trumps the Ross equivalent with better shooting and fewer turnovers. Having two point guards in at the same time, when Vasquez is paired with Kyle Lowry, has made Brooklyn’s plan of smothering K-Low on the pick-and-roll less effective and has opened up the floor for both guards and given more open looks to DeMar DeRozan. Coach Dwane Casey showed that he’s not afraid to shake things up when he bumped John Salmons from the rotation in favor of Landry Fields in Game 2 (a savvy move in hindsight, as Fields was a +8 in 17.6 minutes, compared to Salmons’ -9.0 in 13.3), so don’t be surprised if Ross is playing with a short leash on Friday.
Brooklyn’s Key Adjustment: Rebounding
A big reason why the Raptors turnover discrepancy (40 total to only 19 for the Nets) has not resulted in two blowout losses is because the Nets are getting thoroughly outdone in an important area of the game as well. Through two games, the Raps have outrebounded the Nets 97-67, including 27-18 on the offensive glass. Brooklyn’s ability to grab only 40.9% of the available rebounds in this series represents the lowest mark of any team in the playoffs by a fairly wide margin (45.8% by the Hawks is the next lowest).
The most obvious place to look for the source of the gap in rebounding is straight at the Raptors’ big man, Jonas Valanciunas. The second-year Lithuanian is cleaning the glass for the Raps like his life depends on it, grabbing a staggering 26.4% of available rebounds while he’s on the floor, resulting in an average of 16.0 per game (5.0 on the offensive end) in the process. Of the Nets’ three best rebounders (Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche, and Mason Plumlee are the only Nets with a double-digit rebounding percentage in the series), not a single one is topping 20 minutes per game. Someone is going to have to get in there and box out Jonas if Brooklyn wants to bridge the gap. For all the extra possessions they’re gaining by forcing turnovers, they’re losing them in the rebounding department.
Their best rebounding lineup that’s played together long enough for it to matter had KG and Andrei Kirilenko in it, so that might be a good place to look. AK-47 had a DNP-CD in Game 1, but in the 5 minutes that he played with the starters in place of Shaun Livingston in Game 2, the Nets grabbed 66.7% of the available rebounds. It’s a small sample size, sure, but maybe something to build on. Kirilenko is crafty and has the length to present a matchup problem for Toronto at the four. At the very least, it might be time to see how hard they can ride KG (easily their best rebounder) before the wheels fall off if they want to have a shot at equaling the Raps on the glass.
X-Factor: Making Shots
If both teams fix their biggest problems from the first two games and regress closer to the mean, it might just come down to who shoots the ball better. The Raptors are shooting .436 from the floor and .256 from deep in the series and the Nets have been equally poor at .433 and .229 respectively. Each team has seen their stars struggle. DeRozan has shot .353 for the series and, apart from a crazy fourth quarter in Game 2, has been mostly ineffective. Similarly, Paul Pierce has been pretty lousy for the Nets apart from the final frame in Game 1, shooting .333 for the series. Neither of their point guards have really taken the pressure off them either, with Lowry shooting .379 and Deron Williams hitting at a rate of .371 (Joe Johnson is actually the only starter from positions one to three for either team shooting the least bit effectively at .577).
As we go into Game 3 on Friday night, who wins this game and takes a firmer grip on the series will come down to who best addresses their shortcomings and adjusts to what they’ve faced in the first two contests. If the Raptors manage to fix their ball control problems and the Nets are able to bring the rebounding battle back to relatively even ground, it’ll come down to who starts draining shots. The Nets had the second best three-point shooting percentage at home this season (.391) and were ranked 21st on the road (.348). Based on that, the series shifting back to Brooklyn has the potential to make a big difference in that department.
Regardless, we’ve seen that these matches could go either way. If the Raps win and regain home-court advantage, they jump to being a heavy series favorite (as we predicted all along), with their series win probability jumping to 80% according to our algorithms. If the Nets pull off the win and defend their newly acquired home-court advantage, the tables turn to favor Brooklyn in the series at almost 57%. This matchup has been full of intriguing narratives (dinosaurs, cursing, fondue, lint rollers) and the Barclays Center should be absolutely rocking tonight as we see if anyone can really (expletive deleted) with Brooklyn.