By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
NEW YORK – Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey would not commit to whether his team’s Game 4 win was about great defense or bad offense.
“They missed a lot of easy shots,” Casey said of the Brooklyn Nets. “I thought our team defense was really solid,” he said later.
A little from column A, a little from column B, and the Nets scored just 79 points on 87 possessions, the least efficient performance of either team through four games. The result was an eight-point victory for the Raptors that tied the first round series at two games apiece.
After coming back from 17 points down, Brooklyn had a one-point lead with 4:58 left in the fourth quarter. But they went scoreless on their final eight possessions of the game. The Raptors didn’t have much going on offensively themselves, but got just enough (a Greivis Vasquez 3 here, a Kyle Lowry running hook there) to complement their improved defense.
The Nets were able to get the ball to Joe Johnson, who had been abusing the Toronto defense through the first three games. But the Raptors were aggressive with their double-teams and quick with their rotations. Johnson couldn’t get to his spots in the paint and his teammates couldn’t take advantage of four-on-three situations. Down the stretch, the Nets missed two jumpers, committed four straight turnovers, and then sealed their fate with a 29-second possession that ended in a blown layup by Shaun Livingston.
“The last four minutes is normally when we feel very comfortable,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said. “We just got out of character … We were trying to do it individually instead of making a play for our teammate.”
Johnson, who had averaged 23.7 points on 26-for-43 (60 percent) shooting through the first three games, got just seven shots off in Game 4. He made just two. The Raptors went with a variety of post coverages and it worked.
“Sometimes we were going [with on the dribble,” Casey said. “Sometimes we were going on the pass. Sometimes we were going straight up. I thought mixing it up kept them off balance a little bit. Hopefully, it did. I don’t know.”
“We were much more physical,” Lowry added. “We were much more aggressive on the ball and we tried to make them get the ball to other players.”
The Nets have other players. Pretty good ones, too. They don’t need a big game from Johnson.
But his only teammate who looked comfortable offensively on Sunday was Paul Pierce, who scored 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Others were afraid to shoot or just shaky with their jumpers. It was like the veteran team shrunk in the big moment.
“I thought [Johnson] made all the right plays,” Kidd said, “but we couldn’t knock down a shot for him.”
The jumpers haven’t been there all series, really. After a 4-for-20 performance in Game 4, the Nets are a brutal 22-for-88 (25 percent) from 3-point range in the series.
Despite that, the Nets had been pretty efficient through the first three games. But when the Raptors took away Johnson, everything fell apart. Toronto was a top-10 defensive team in the regular season and looked like it for the first time in the playoffs. Well, sort of…
“I’m not fooled by anything,” Casey said. “I thought our defense was solid. But as far as just stopping them and taking them totally out of what they want to do … they got some good looks. We made a lot of mistakes in our schemes. So we’re going to have to go back and make some adjustments on our own to clean up some stuff, because some of the shots they missed … we don’t want to leave that to chance.”
Still, the Raptors took a step forward on Sunday. They showed resilience in the face of a more experienced team, a hostile crowd, a handful of injuries, and foul trouble.
“Matching their physicality was a huge key for us,” Greivis Vasquez said. “We got the win by playing their way, which is physical. And we were not afraid. We gained a lot of experience and a lot of confidence tonight.”
They also regained home-court advantage, with Game 5 back in Toronto on Wednesday.