Loss of defensive identity cost Raps dearly

The Raptors weren't able to find a solution that could stop Joe Johnson, who averaged 21.6 points per game and shot 51.8 percent for the series (Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP)
May 5, 2014, 1:43 PM

Regularly throughout the NBA playoffs, we’ll be checking in with former Raptors head coach Butch Carter for an insider’s perspective on the X’s and O’s that lead to W’s and L’s. Today, Carter breaks down the key adjustments on both sidelines that allowed the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Toronto Raptors and advance to the second round.

The Toronto Raptors came into the playoffs as one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. But you have to look at where they finished the first round. The Raptors lost the series because they lost their sense of defensive identity.

During the year, Toronto held opponents to 45 percent shooting, tying the Memphis Grizzlies for ninth in the league. Yet from Game 5’s near-collapse to the final buzzer yesterday, the Brooklyn Nets shot 49.5 percent from the floor, including 63.2 percent in the second half of Game 5 alone. The importance of those ten quarters can’t be overstated and, ultimately, I think Brooklyn’s adjustments over that span were simply better than Toronto’s.

A big problem for the Raptors in the series was a lack of defensive communication. When you watch the best teams in defensive transition, you’ll notice a lot of pointing and talking, making sure everyone is aware of who they’re guarding. But the Raps complicated that process because their two best offensive players—Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan—couldn’t guard their opposing positions. That forced their teammates to cross each other on the way back down the floor in order to get to their defensive assignments, which made great communication even more crucial in order to get stops. It reared its ugly head in the fourth quarter of Game 5. Watching video of that quarter, I didn’t see guys pointing and yelling out who their man was.

Watch the clip above and you’ll see that kid Amir Johnson gives great hustle, but had there been more talking he’d had to do a helluva lot less work. They could have avoided that whole play entirely.

The fact that the Raptors were always caught having to cross coming back on defence was a tremendous burden and from halftime in Game 5 all the way through to the end of the series, Brooklyn outscored Toronto in transition. You could see it in the 2-on-1 and 3-on-1 opportunities the Nets had throughout.

The Raptors’ most successful game was the 87-79 win in Game 4. They limited Joe Johnson to seven points on 2-of-7 shooting in that game by forcing him to catch the ball where he wasn’t comfortable. Jason Kidd made the mistake in that game of going away from Johnson—and staying away.But in the following games, Kidd made the adjustments necessary to create open shots for his team.

The scheme Brooklyn began using on offence had two options, a primary and a secondary plan. It started by getting the ball to Joe Johnson in the low post to activate the double team from the Raptors. The reason for that is the Raptors were extremely poor at covering the weak-side corner out of the double team—as we saw with Marcus Thornton yesterday, for example.

The second part of the Nets’ offensive gameplan came after the primary option had been well established. After Johnson had sacrificed himself for his teammates to get that done, they started feeding him the basketball on the wing—15 to 18 feet from the basket—in order to create a one-on-one isolation with DeRozan. Not only was Johnson more effective scoring against DeMar, he caught the ball an average of four feet closer to the basket than whether he had other Raptors guarding him. While guarded by all other Raptors, Johnson finished 46.4 percent of his shot attempts, but with DeRozan on him that number climbed to 61 percent.

I believe there are two types of defenders—circles and rectangles. The names refer to the shape (invisible, of course) of the space they take up and force their man to get around on the defensive end. Rectangles are good defenders and it normally requires three dribbles to get around them. Circles don’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of their man and block his progress. They allow him to get around the corner or go right through them in a direct line. Jason Kidd identified DeMar as a circle defender, and exploiting that through Johnson became the primary point of his offensive strategy. It hurt the Raptors so much in Game 1, and Kidd stayed consistent in that strategy through to game seven.

It’s why I believe the Raptors hurt themselves by not holding a number of shootarounds between games in the series, where they could have walked through their plan to counteract that matchup in detail. Rest is important, but so is strategy.

That’s where human nature comes into play. Toronto relied on heavy minutes from their two stars, and Dwane Casey is a coach trying to make sure he has a job next year and that he can bring Kyle back to Toronto with him. From that standpoint, he made a decision with his practice and shootaround schedule based on rest. But it wasn’t a lack of rest that ultimately killed them; it was a lack of defensive consistency.

Check back later this week for Coach Carter’s take on Dwane Casey’s performance this season and what to expect from the Raptors in the off-season.

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