Raptors’ egalitarian approach proves too much for Nets to handle in Game 2

Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors celebrates a basket with teammate Kyle Lowry during the fourth quarter of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

TORONTO – As the old adage goes, don’t poke the bear.

Normally reserved for Kyle Lowry in the context of the Toronto Raptors, during Wednesday’s Game 2 of their opening-round series with the Brooklyn Nets, the bear in question in this case was OG Anunoby.

With nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Anunoby swooped past Nets defender Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and went in for a big dunk to give the Raptors an 84-83 lead — the only one they had enjoyed all game.

This was a dunk made with some rarely-shown emotion from Anunoby who, on just the possession before, got clocked by Brooklyn’s Rodions Kurucs on a screen that looked to be a flagrant foul but was just ruled a common one.

Such an indiscretion wouldn’t go unpunished it would seem.

So, Anunoby came down the other end of the floor, punched home a dunk and sparked a game-finishing 22-15 run to end the quarter, as the Raptors took a 2-0 series lead over the Nets with a 104-99 win Wednesday.

“We just try to stay aggressive the whole game,” Anunoby said of the incident with Kurucs. “I guess we use it as motivation or whatever. But we try to stay aggressive the whole game, and they said it was a common foul, so it was nothing serious.”

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Though his usual calm self after game, Anunoby appeared to flash some anger in that moment and it proved to be a catalyst to Toronto’s eventual victory after an inconsistent afternoon.

The Raptors only shot 43.7 per cent from the field on the afternoon and a downright abysmal 25.7 per cent from three-point range.

This comes on the heels of a historically great offensive showing from Toronto in Game 1 that saw the team set franchise playoff records in recording 134 points and making 22 three-pointers.

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn made a smart adjustment in Game 2 to change his defensive philosophy against the Raptors’ pick-and-roll. Instead of going under the screen and daring the Raptors to shoot, the Nets switched everything so shooters weren’t able to shake free as easily.

This scheme appeared to have been made in response to the 30-point, 10-assist masterpiece Fred VanVleet put up in Game 1 that saw him go 8-of-10 from deep, including a number from beyond 26 feet out.

For the first six minutes or so of the game, this scheme of Vaughn’s appeared to be working as the Raptors looked flummoxed in their offence as the Nets jumped out to a 26-12 lead.

“They executed it well,” Nurse said of the Nets’ switching scheme. “They did a good job, were really ready for the game, made some adjustments. We had to make some more on the fly, that’s kind of what happens when one team wins and one team loses, you see a lot of adjustments from the one team and the other team’s trying to everything they just did but that really isn’t reality. It doesn’t work out that way, as we saw today.”

The adjustment the Raptors made to the Nets’ scheme was to have guys cut more and run more set plays. It also helped that immediately after the Nets got out to that 14-point lead, one of the Raptors’ best players came alive.

Pascal Siakam hit a pull-up jumper with a little under five minutes to play in the frame and looked to get his groove back, as he led the Raptors on a 13-0 run that saw him score eight points in the duration and bring the game to 26-25 with about two-and-a-half minutes to play in the frame.

In total, he scored 14 of the 19 total points he amassed in the game in the first quarter and started a trend of sorts for the Raptors in the contest.

Three different Raptors – VanVleet, Norman Powell and Lowry – finished with 21 or more points for Toronto Wednesday, to add onto Siakam’s 19. The Raptors have stressed an egalitarian approach to their success all season long to and Game 2 was very much proof of what that looked like, with nearly each Raptors player enjoying a moment or two of individual success at one point in the game.

In Siakam’s case, his first-quarter explosion helped pave the way for the rest of his teammates, who gladly took the baton from him and ran with it.

“…I think that’s what we’re good at, making sure that we keep playing the game, and executing, and making sure that we win the game,” said Siakam, who went 5-of-7 from the floor in that first quarter. “That’s all we care about, to be honest.”

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VanVleet, who tied for a game-high 24 points scored, also enjoyed a 14-point eruption — with his coming in the third quarter — helping the Raptors enter the fourth trailing just 80-74.

For Anunoby, his singular moment came in the fourth quarter with that big dunk that looked to spark the Raptors, but his biggest contribution probably came on the defensive end. Anunoby was made the primary defender on Caris LeVert and did an excellent job of limiting the Nets rising star, who finished just 5-of-22 from the field for 16 points.

“He’s very shifty. Really good player. Can score from anywhere,” said Anunoby of Levert. “So just trying to frustrate him, speed him up, and force him to take difficult shots.”

These contributions then all helped set up a fourth quarter where, after spending nearly the entire game constantly knocking on the door of taking the lead, Anunoby’s dunk finally allowed the Raptors to break through.

And if Anunoby helped open that door early in the fourth quarter, then it was Powell who shoved a wedge into it, ensuring Toronto would take Game 2.

Also finishing with 24 points, Powell scored 12 in the fourth quarter and caught fire, going 6-of-7 from the field, with four of those makes being either a layup or dunk — including an exclamation-mark breakaway jam with five seconds to go.

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Powell sensed the moment and did everything he could to make sure that neither he nor his team would let it slip away.

“I work a lot on my mental side and staying focused and locked in and just letting the game flow and I feel like in the playoffs nothing else matters, I’m just able to focus in on what we have to do. I think that’s the foundation of my game, playing with a pure heart, trying to be aggressive and make winning plays for the team,” Powell said. “That’s all within me when I was growing up is doing whatever it takes to win.”

Though overmatched from a talent perspective, the Nets are a team that plays hard and they gave the Raptors a run for their money for most of the game.

Fortunately for the Raptors, they managed to figure out Brooklyn’s defensive scheme in time and also had their own defence to rely on as they limited the Nets to under 100 points and just 38.8 per cent shooting from the field — spurred on by an excellent fourth quarter that saw them hold Brooklyn to just 19 points on just 7-of-20 shooting and turn the ball over five times.

Defence has often been talked about as the main key to the Raptors’ success, but another important ingredient is the team’s ability to find offence from all over the lineup and the myriad of contributions the Raptors got from all over Wednesday was proof of that.

The game was likely closer than they would’ve liked, but, overall, it proved to be a suitable blueprint to how they’ll probably look to win moving forward.

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