Posts Tagged ‘Amir Johnson’

Morning shootaround — July 28


VIDEO: David Lee talks about joining the Celtics

NEWS OF THE MORNING

A.D. OK with Pelicans’ flight path | Kentucky’s NBA influence pervasive | Did Jackson’s miscalculations cost Knicks? | So many jersey numbers, so few available

No. 1: A.D. OK with Pelicans’ flight path — Keeping your superstar happy is job No. 1 for any NBA general manager or head coach who aspires to job security and the latitude to purchase green bananas. So based on some comments Monday by New Orleans tent-pole guy Anthony Davis, GM Dell Demps and new bench boss Alvin Gentry are free to unpack and stay awhile. Davis, on a conference-call interview, talked to The Associated Press and others about his $145 million contract extension and the special relationship he had with the terminated (and relocated-to-OKC-staff) Monty Williams. But he apparently sounded just as enthused about the Pelicans’ new direction with Gentry:

Now Davis is eager to see how Gentry’s coaching philosophy will mesh with the Pelicans’ talent. Davis was a high-schooler when Gentry coached the Phoenix Suns to the 2010 Western Conference finals with a fast-paced, high-scoring offense featuring guard Steve Nash and power forward Amar’e Stoudemire. The Pelicans power forward remembers that squad fondly and also has been impressed by the influence Gentry, as a top offensive assistant, has had more recently on recent Western Conference contenders such as the Los Angeles Clippers and defending champion Golden State Warriors.

“I definitely love his playing style,” Davis said. “My teammates, they have a lot of confidence in Coach Gentry. I think that’s why everybody’s coming back.

“In order for us to be that contender that we want to be, we have to have a lot of chemistry, which we have from the past few years,” Davis added. “So it’s good that everybody’s going to come back and we’re going to be able to have that chemistry ready for Coach’s new system.”

Last season, the Pelicans qualified for the playoffs for the first time in Davis’ three years as a pro and lost to the Warriors in a sweep. But Gentry told Davis that he was nonetheless impressed with the Pelicans’ talent and had a plan to get the most out it.

“He stated several times he loved our team and was going to try to get everybody back,” Davis said. “That’s the first thing that he said, and I couldn’t agree more.”

It also meant a lot to Davis to see Gentry look into a TV camera during the Warriors’ locker-room celebration immediately after Golden State had won the title, saying, “AD, we’re going to be right back here!”

“That’s the biggest thing that really got me excited because he wasn’t just saying that to say it. He really believes that,” Davis said.

***

No. 2: Kentucky’s NBA influence pervasive — Excellence in college basketball doesn’t always translate to the professional ranks, particularly on a case-by-case basis. But in the aggregate, the “Kareem” generally rises to the top — that’s why UCLA, for example, and its John Wooden-produced players held sway for many NBA seasons, in terms of impact on the league. Other powerhouses of the NCAA game — North Carolina, Duke, Indiana — have had enviable influence as well. But according to ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, no college program ever has asserted itself at the next level — in both quantity and quality — the way the University of Kentucky is and will, based on his projections of the near-term. Here are some pertinent excerpts of what Doolittle refers to as “historical stuff:”

…Beginning in the 1969-70 season — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s rookie year — Wooden’s players rose to the top of the NBA win shares list. Thanks to Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas had topped the list for much of the 1960s, though it was actually Indiana that held the No. 1 spot the year before UCLA took over. The Bruins proceeded to dominate the rankings for the next decade and a half, finishing No. 1 in every season through 1983-84. UCLA was then brushed aside by a long period of Michael Jordan/North Carolina dominance. Since then, the top slot has changed hands a number of times, with familiar blue-blood programs like UNC, UCLA and Duke usually winning out, but other programs like UConn, Georgetown and even Georgia Tech have taken a turn or two.

…The Bruins’ high-water mark was 71.3 win shares for the 1976-77 NBA season. UNC was No. 2 — at 28.6. Former Bruin Bill Walton led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA crown that season, and Abdul-Jabbar was the league’s best player. Jamaal Wilkes, Swen Nater and Sidney Wicks were other ex-Bruins producing at the time. Those 71.3 win shares stand as the record for one school in one season.

For now, anyway. Kentucky is coming on fast. Already, its totals for the past two seasons rank among the top 11 in league history.

That is indeed impressive, yet not as impressive as what might happen this season. To jump all this historical chatter back into the present, let me remind you of the obvious: [Coach John] Calipari most likely will have another seven rookies in the league this season. That could give Kentucky as many as 25 players in the NBA for 2015-16, though not all of them played for Calipari. …

The sheer number of players is impressive, but not as much as the quality. We mentioned [Karl-Anthony] Towns and [Anthony] Davis as possible award winners. Yet John Wall, [Eric] Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins could all join Davis in the top 15-20 on the win shares board. And WARP, too, for that matter. In fact, I did some rough translations of my WARP projections into win shares. That’s where the story gets really interesting.

The 25 former Kentucky players I’ve flagged as “active” collectively project to put up 90.3 win shares this season. Let me re-state that for emphasis, like I’m writing a big check: 90.3!

***

No. 3: Did Jackson’s miscalculations cost Knicks? — Five months can be an eternity, when something moves as quickly as the NBA economy. So perhaps one shouldn’t judge New York Knicks president Phil Jackson too harshly that some of the assumptions he held about his team and the league in February had changed significantly by July. But according to the New York Daily News, playing off interviews Jackson did with longtime friend Charley Rosen back in February, the Knicks boss was conservative in his estimates of the new salary cap and the skyrocketing contract numbers, up to and including Memphis free-agent center Marc Gasol. The report includes Jackson’s thoughts at the time, too, on Goran Dragic at the trade deadline, on the deal he did make sending J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland and on the city and state taxes that impact New York as a free-agent destination:

Specifically, Jackson told a friend in February that he was wary of giving Memphis’ Marc Gasol a contract with a starting salary of $18 million. Jackson later signed [Robin] Lopez to a four-year deal with an average salary of $13.5 million.

“It’s tricky. The question is who to offer the big money to?” Jackson said in the latest installment of his in-season interviews with his pal Charley Rosen, which was published Monday by ESPN. “A guy who’s an established player or someone who has sky-high potential? Also, there are, and always have been, really good players who are not winners − guys like Joe Barry Carroll, Glenn Robinson and many more whom I don’t care to name.

“And then there’s someone like Marc Gasol, who’s certainly a winner and would have to be paid somewhere around $18 million, a number that would severely limit what we could offer other players. We’d wind up with starters only getting about $5 million.”

It’s clear by that statement Jackson underestimated the rise in the salary cap, which jumped 11% to $70 million. As a result, the Knicks had more money to play with in free agency and Gasol signed a deal with the Grizzlies larger than Jackson’s estimate.

Gasol, a First Team All-NBA selection and former Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 17.4 points and 7.8 rebounds for the Grizzlies last season. Lopez, who lost to Gasol in the playoffs, averaged 9.6 points and 6.7 rebounds last season.

Jackson handed out contracts over the summer worth a combined $96 million to Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams and Kyle O’Quinn. The only max-contract candidate who seriously considered the Knicks was Greg Monroe, who instead signed with Milwaukee.

***

No. 4: So many jersey numbers, so few available — Some sociology major might be able to use the Boston Celtics’ jersey-number dilemma as a metaphor for a looming issue in the U.S. workplace: What happens when you’ve got more retirees than active workers? Or something like that. That seems to be a problem for the Celtics, who have retired the numbers of so many great individuals that the franchise is running short of options — at least in terms of traditional, basketball-familiar numbers — for its current and future players. The team’s introduction of some offseason signees had a couple sporting numbers seemingly more fit for the New England Patriots.

It’s a function of the Celtics’ excellence and their zeal in maintaining a tradition that soon might crowd on-court performers over the next century into triple digits. Here’s a synopsis as provided by the FriendlyBounce.com site:

Moving to the middle of the photo, we see Amir Johnson holding the No. 90 jersey. Johnson most recently wore No. 15 with the Raptors, and reportedly wanted the No. 5 shirt with Boston. Johnson had this (via NESN) to say about his number choice:

“Every number 1 through 34 is basically retired,” Johnson said. “My first initial number, I picked No. 5, but I know there was going to kind of be some controversy with that because Kevin Garnett won a championship. So I knew that was pretty much out of the water. My number (15), of course, was retired. And I recently posted a picture on my social network, I don’t know if you guys checked it out, it was a team back in the ’90s — like ’97, ’96 — I played for my first organized basketball team, which was the Burbank Celtics. It was a Celtics team. So I just kind of just put that together. The ’90s were good. I was born in ’87, but the ’90s were good.”

“I was born in ’87, but the ’90s were good” is an awesome sentence. Also, based on this list compiled by the great Basketball Reference, the best player in NBA history to ever wear the #90 is Drew Gooden. So it’s unique, at least!

Further left, [David] Lee chose the No. 42 he originally sported during his days with the Knicks. Nothing to see here.

And, finally, we have Perry Jones III donning that ever-so-rare No. 38. Jones wore the No. 3 shirt in OKC. Of course, Boston’s No. 3 is and forever will be that of the late, great Dennis Johnson. In case you were wondering, that same B-R list names Viktor Khryapa, Ron Knight and Kwame Brown as the best No. 38-wearers the league has ever seen. We’ve hardly even seen PJ3 play meaningful NBA minutes, yet already I feel fairly comfortable saying he’s probably better than all three of those guys.

In all, the Celtics have retired the following numbers already: 00, 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 31, 32, 33 and 35. No. 34 will surely be added to that list whenever Paul Pierce decides to hang ’em up.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Iceman shows he ain’t ready to go-eth quite yet … Roy Hibbert had some pointed things to say in an interview with our David Aldridge, including thoughts on Frank Vogel as a non-NBA-playing head coach … Would Mike Miller make sense back in Miami, even though his benefactor LeBron James is gone? … The late Manute Bol‘s son is developing some nice skills, something that pleased former NBA player-turned-broadcaster Eddie Johnson … Who do you consider the best undrafted players in league history? The HoopsHype.com crew ranks its top 30 (hint: Brad Miller is high on the list) …

Wizards taking out Toronto guards


VIDEO: The Starters discuss the Raptors going down 2-0 to the Wizards at home.

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — As bad as the Toronto Raptors’ defense was in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Washington Wizards, they’ve also got some things to figure out offensively as they prepare for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

The Raptors ranked third in offensive efficiency in the regular season. But through two playoff games, they rank 14th. Their offense was much better in Game 2 than it was in Game 1, but not good enough to keep up with their defensive issues.

The problems on defense aren’t getting fixed overnight. The Wizards will continue putting Jonas Valanciunas in situations where he has to move his feet, and he will continue to not move them quickly enough. The Raptors ranked 26th defensively after Thanksgiving, and they’re probably not going to flip the switch on that end of the floor.

So if Toronto is to give themselves a chance in this series by winning Game 3, they have to start looking like a top-five offense again. And to do that, they have to unlock their guards.

It’s no secret that the Raptors’ offense is guard-heavy. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams were not only their three leading scorers by a wide margin, but also their leaders in usage rate (the percentage of a team’s possessions a player uses while he’s on the floor), with another guard – Greivis Vasquez – ranking fourth.

The Wizards know this. The Toronto guards are the head of the snake, and that’s where Washington’s defense has been focused.

Here’s DeRozan being double-teamed in the post…

20150421_dd_post

Here’s Lowry being denied the ball more than 30 feet from the basket…

20150421_kl_deny

And here’s Williams being trapped 10 feet beyond the 3-point line…

20150421_lw_trap

DeRozan and Lowry have each seen a drop in usage rate. Williams’ usage rate has gone up, but the Kia Sixth Man award winner has been forced to … force things. Only 10 (34 percent) of his 29 shots have been uncontested, a drop from 47 percent in the regular season.

The key to beating extra pressure on the perimeter is to pass the ball. But the Raptors aren’t exactly the Spurs in that regard. They averaged just 281 passes per game, a rate that ranked 24th in the league. And they were one of four teams that isolated on more than 10 percent of its possessions.

The Raptors were able to get DeRozan some more space by having him catch the ball on the move and operate one-on-one against Paul Pierce early in Game 2. He also went away from the screen (or just told his screener to back off) to avoid an extra defender.

Here are a few more suggestions for the Raptors to get their guards some more space to operate or take advantage of the perimeter pressure…

1. Catches at the nail

The Raptors can take a lesson from last year’s series against Brooklyn, when the Nets got the ball to Joe Johnson at the middle of the foul line to avoid double-teams in the post. If the ball is in the middle of the floor, it’s difficult to double-team, because the four other offensive players are all just one pass away. There’s a reason why a lot of defenses (the Spurs are a great example) do everything to keep the ball away from the middle of the floor.

A pin-down screen for DeRozan and a catch above the foul line will give him a one-on-one situation, a look similar to this…

20150421_dd_top

The spacing above isn’t ideal, but if you replace Tyler Hansbrough with Patrick Patterson and put him on the left wing, DeRozan would have more room to operate and no Washington defender would be able to offer help without leaving a shooter open at the 3-point line or Jonas Valanciunas open on the baseline.

2. Three-guard lineups

The Raptors’ backcourt goes four deep, with Williams and Vasquez able to make plays off the bench. And they’ve played with three of the four on the floor together for about 60 of the 101 minutes thus far in the series.

Not surprisingly, the offense has been much better (104.3 points scored per 100 possessions) in those minutes than in the minutes with just two guards (83.0). Simple math tells you that if there are three playmakers on the floor, the defense can’t double-team all of them. And if a guy who’s being double-teamed can get rid of the ball quickly, he’ll have at least two teammates who can take advantage of a four-on-three situation.

3. James Johnson

When the opponent defends your pick-and-roll aggressively, it helps to have a screener who can get the ball from the ball-handler and quickly make a play before the defense recovers. See Diaw, Boris.

In Game 1, Amir Johnson was often that release valve for the Raptors and led the team with 18 points as a result. On several possessions in the second quarter of Game 2, the Raptors used James Johnson as the screener and had him attack the rim while the defense was still moving. Here’s an example.

The results would have been OK if Johnson didn’t shoot 0-for-4 from the free throw line. The bigger problem was that the Raptors’ defense was getting scorched at the same time. Johnson was a minus-14 in just seven minutes of action, with the Wizards scoring 26 points on the 15 possessions for which he was on the floor.

James Johnson isn’t nearly the passer that Diaw is, but he is better than Amir Johnson at attacking and scoring. It’s a question of whether or not he can be trusted on the other end of the floor.

4. Hope Lowry is healthy

None of the above matters much if Lowry isn’t close to 100 percent. He’s been dealing with a back issue and then suffered a shin contusion in the fourth quarter of Game 2. He seemingly is lacking both burst off the dribble and lift on his jumper.

The Raptors have a deep backcourt and one of the best benches in the league, but Lowry is still their engine.

Talking numbers with Raptors’ Casey


VIDEO: 2014-15 Raptors Team Preview

NEW YORK — To be a true title contender, a team must be among the league’s best on both ends of the floor.

There were four teams who ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. Three of them should be no surprise. But four months later, it’s still strange seeing the Toronto Raptors as the Eastern Conference’s only representative on the list.

20141014_top_10

The Raptors were a surprise in the standings too. After five years outside the playoffs and a 6-12 start, the Raps went 42-22 over the final four months and finished third in the East.

But the Raps still finished one possession short of the conference semifinals. So they have to find ways to keep getting better after making jumps on both ends of the floor last season. (more…)

First Team: KD evokes MJ in MVP season

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Kevin Durant took his otherworldly scoring abilities to another level in his 2013-14 MVP campaign.

Kevin Durant took his otherworldly scoring abilities to another level in his 2013-14 MVP campaign.

There’s a sense Kevin Durant still hasn’t peeked at his peak. His length is unfair. His angel-hair pasta build is a rebellion against the MUSCLEWATCH movement that dominates the NBA. Myth has him closer to being 7-foot than his listed 6-foot-9. All of this leads to a virtually unblockable shot (don’t tell James Johnson!) that allows him to get a clean look whenever he wants.

The results:

1) NBA MVP
2) Five All-NBA first teams
3) Four scoring titles
4) All-Star MVP
5) Olympic gold medal
6) A host of honors too long to list here

Yet Durant is far from a finished product. There’s that untapped post game that Charles Barkley keeps hammering about. Can he win seven more scoring titles to surpass MJ? Could Durant, who turns 26 next week, snatch the top scoring spot from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by the time it’s all said and done?

Last season, he dropped at least 25 points in 41 straight games to top His Airness’ modern-day record (only Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain have more). The night his streak was “broken,” he scored 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting in 31 minutes, then went on to rip off another eight straight at the 25-point level. He hit that mark in 63 out of his final 65 games.

In addition to scoring and playing more minutes than anybody else, he dealt a career-high 5.5 dimes per contest. He even tied for the league lead in technical fouls (16). The only thing Durant was missing last season was a nickname that stuck.

Here are his top games last season:

Jan.17, 2014 — Striking Down The Warriors

The Line: 54 points on 19-for-28 shooting

The Quote:He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great.” — Warriors head coach Mark Jackson


VIDEO: Kevin Durant carves Warriors up for career-high 54 points

As he did for most of the season, Durant was playing without Russell Westbrook this night, giving him carte blanche with the rock. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green did what they could, but the easy truth about basketball is this: Great offense trumps great defense every time. On this night, Durant put it all together for a career night.

Jan. 21, 2014 — Extinguishing The Blazers

The Line: 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting, 6 3s

The Quote: “The way he was playing, he probably could have scored on Jesus.” – Trail Blazers guard Mo Williams


VIDEO: Durant goes for 46 points in lighting up the Blazers

The eighth night of The Streak was Fan Night on NBA TV. KD had his 25 by the end of the third quarter, but his team nursed a two-point lead going into the fourth. Without Westbrook and a tough Portland team promising to make matters difficult, his plate was full.

So Durant ate. First off a deadly mid-range game, then with a 3-point light show at the end, including a coup de grace over Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.

Jan. 27, 2014 — Just Another Night

The Line: 41 points on 15-for-25 shooting, 3 blocks

The Quote: “He’s going to be an MVP candidate until he decides to retire.” – Thunder head coach Scott Brooks


VIDEO: Kevin Durant clips Hawks with game-winner to cap 41-point night

With no Westbrook again, Durant donned the hero cape. On the defining play of the game, the double team came from the left. Durant started right. Three hard dribbles later, with three Hawks in the vicinity, he confirmed another moment in a season full of them. Another game winner, another vicious January performance. Just another night, his 10th straight reaching 30 points.

Durant used January to make volume efficiency his M.O. For the month, he put up 36 points on 55 percent shooting, 44 percent beyond the arc. That. Is. Insane.

Feb. 13, 2014 — Rally On The Road

The Line: 43 points on 14-for-33 shooting, 19 in fourth quarter, 7 assists

The Quote: “He is one of the best I have seen in terms of really just playing through anything and everything.” – Thunder guard Derek Fisher


VIDEO: Kevin Durant ends first half with 43-point performance in L.A.

Durant’s final game before the All-Star break didn’t start auspiciously. He clanked his first eight treyballs and his team fought uphill all game. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Thunder were down 13 to a Lakers team that had lost its previous six home games.

But ‘Mr. Unreliable’ took over, almost outscoring the Lakers by himself (19 to 21). He topped the 40-point mark for the eighth time, matching the previous season’s high set by Carmelo Anthony and Kobe. No better way to end the best first half of his career.

March 21, 2014 — Making Fossils Out Of Raptors

The Line: 51 points (38 in second half and two OTs), 12 rebounds, 7 assists

The Quote: “It looked good when it left my hands and God guided that thing in the basket. That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of.” — Durant


VIDEO:
Kevin Durant finishes off Raptors in 2OT with game-winner, 51 points

What does a man have to do to get a double team? No matter how many times Amir Johnson stood on an island guarding the best scorer in the league, help never came. But you know what? It probably wouldn’t have mattered. Forces of nature are inevitable.

Down eight points with 49 seconds left, the Thunder ended the game on a 9-0 run. Who was responsible for those final points? Do you even have to ask?

 

Casey, Raptors want to ride continuity

 

casey

Dwane Casey will be looking to build on last season’s 48-win campaign. (NBAE via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Back in December it hardly seemed possible that Dwane Casey would be standing here at Summer League with a smile on his face and his lightweight button-down shirt casually untucked, and most of all still as the coach of the Toronto Raptors.

This misbegotten big-market franchise with the redundant roster was floundering again, off to a 7-12 start, and the well-liked, but lame-duck Casey looked to be running out the clock on his three-year contract.

Then, on Dec. 8, new general manager Masai Ujiri, having built a reputation as a next-generation whiz, made the deal to send Rudy Gay and his massive contract to Sacramento for depth help in point guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Around the same time, Knicks president James Dolan vetoed a trade that would have landed Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry in New York.

Suddenly, a feeling of stability overtook the team. They looked around, looked at themselves and liked what they saw. And everything changed.

“After the trade happened, I thought it brought our team together — camaraderie,” said Casey, who signed a three-year contract extension in May. “They made the decision that we were not going to be a lottery team — I think that’s what everybody expected — and we kept teaching them the principles of what we wanted to be doing and it just came together.

This wasn’t a referendum on Gay, who went to have a surprisingly efficient offensive season with the Kings. Gay and DeRozan are friends off the court, but ill-fitting parts on it, and as the parts fit better and the floor opened up, the Raptors’ offense, also buoyed by Lowry’s uprising, took off.

“It was a fit,” Casey said. “A lot of times you have talent and it doesn’t fit. DeMar and Rudy were similar and Terrence Ross is sitting there, he’s similar, so once you took all the pieces out it opened up things and we went from 29th, I think, in the league in assists to 16th or 17th. That really changed things for us. It helped us tremendously.”

On Dec. 8, the Raptors ranked 30th in assists and 28th in offensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Dec. 9 to the end of the season, they ranked 13th in assists and ninth in offensive efficiency (107.2). They went 41-22 after the Gay trade and played a rousing seven-game series in front of madhouse crowds, plus gatherings of 10,000 fans in Maple Leaf Square. It was truly one of the great scenes of the postseason.

And it was enough to convince Lowry to stay put, making him the rare Raptor to re-up when he had a chance to leave. He signed a four-year deal worth $48 million. Free agents Patterson and Vasquez also re-signed. Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Jonas Valanciunas, Ross, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough are all back, giving the Raptors a real sense of continuity in roster and process.

Toronto also traded Salmons to Atlanta for guard Lou Williams and intriguing developmental center Lucas Nogueria, and signed long, athletic wing James Johnson, who is coming off something of a breakout season with Memphis.

“I don’t know if [Lowry] is the first player to be a free agent to re-sign that had an opportunity to leave, so that says something about what we’re trying to do, where we are, trying to build,” Casey said. “For the first time in his career he was able to say, ‘this is a team that I’m one of the leaders of,’ and for him to come back, it does make a statement of where we are in our growth process and the kind of program we have, and kind of opened some eyes to what kind of city Toronto is.

“The continuity is huge,” Casey said. “You can just see it turning, guys are getting comfortable with the defensive system, the offensive system. We can be top 10 in both offense and defense. Now we just have to continue to do that.”

The Raptors could get some votes as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the preseason predictions start to hit the newsstands. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has shaken up a conference that might boast a favorite in Chicago, but mostly has a handful of what should be entertaining squads, including Toronto, Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and perhaps Brooklyn and still Miami.

“There’s opportunity for somebody to step up, it’s so balanced right now from top to bottom,” Casey said of the conference. “It gives us an opportunity to move up and take another step.”

Back in December, that hardly seemed possible.

Six factors that can separate the Nets and Raptors in Game 7

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors: Game 7 Preview

TORONTO — How silly of us to think that one of these teams would win this series in six games. We should have realized that the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets have some sort of reciprocal gravity that keeps one team from ever pulling away from the other.

They’ve played 10 games this season. They’ve each won five, with a total combined score of Raptors 767, Nets 766. Eight of the 10 games have been within five points in the last five minutes.

So it’s only fitting that this first round series will come down to a Game 7 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

For the Raptors, this is an opportunity. A win would give their young core 4-7 more games of playoff experience against the defending champion Miami Heat. It would give head coach Dwane Casey additional job security. And it would help establish the franchise’s place on the NBA map.

For the Nets, this is another referendum. If they can’t get past the first round, what exactly did they spend $104 million in salary and another $92 million in luxury taxes on? And where the heck do they go from here?

“They have more to lose than us,” DeMar DeRozan said Saturday.

Indeed. But payroll won’t determine which team gets their first Game 7 victory (since the Nets came to the NBA). These six factors will.

The nail

Though the Nets lost Game 5, they established some things offensively. One of those was Joe Johnson operating from the middle of the floor, a set that made it difficult for the Raptors to double-team him. The Nets didn’t go to that set much in Game 6, instead using Johnson back in the low post and in pick-and-rolls with Deron Williams more often.

But the Nets did take the middle of the floor away from Kyle Lowry, who scored just three points in the paint or at the free throw line in Game 6 after scoring 14 in Game 5. They took away the Raptors’ primary offensive actions and often had them trying to improvise with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

DeMar DeRozan will make some tough shots, but if it’s only tough shots that he’s getting, Brooklyn is in good shape.

Minutes distribution

The Raptors have been at their best when reserves Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are on the floor. They may sacrifice some defense by playing big minutes with Lowry, Vasquez, DeRozan and Patterson on the floor together, but their regular small forwards have come up empty offensively all series.

Terrence Ross is gaining experience and John Salmons is a bigger body to put on Johnson. But Raptors coach Dwane Casey shouldn’t hesitate to go to the three-guard lineup early and often, because the positives on offense will outweigh the negatives on D.

Lowry, Vasquez, DeRozan and Patterson are a plus-23 in 54 minutes together, but played just 12 minutes over the last two games.

The 3-point line

Neither team has shot well from 3-point range in the series, but both teams have attempted 22 threes per game. If one team – or just one player – gets hot, it could be the difference. With the attention that Johnson draws, Brooklyn is more likely to get open looks. That’s why Alan Anderson has replaced Shaun Livingston in the starting lineup.

Patterson, of course, puts a fourth shooter on the floor for Toronto. He can punish the Nets’ defense for its focus on Lowry and DeRozan.

Toronto on the roll

One of the bellwethers of this series has been Amir Johnson, who has averaged 14.7 points in the Raptors’ three wins and 4.3 points in their three losses. A lot of Johnson’s production has come as the roll man, catching passes from Lowry and Vasquez. The Nets’ weak-side defender needs to meet the roll man – whether it’s Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas – before he gets too close to the basket.

Transition

Both teams have averaged less than 10 fast break points per game, but have been at their best when they’ve been able to get out into the open floor. Williams pushed the pace from the start in Game 6, which allowed the Nets to get into their offensive actions early in the shot clock and before the Raptors could get set. That produced easier shots.

When the Raptors made a little bit of a run in the fourth quarter, they were getting some easy baskets in transition as well.

Turnovers

After averaging 19.3 turnovers in the first three games, the Raptors have averaged just 13.0 in the last three. But it was an issue that popped up again in the fourth quarter on Friday, keeping them from being able to cut the Brooklyn lead to single digits. Any extended turnover issues in Game 7 (for either team) could end their season.

Nets and Raptors looking to control the nail

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Joe Drops 30

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Game 6 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the first round series between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets will be determined by a nail. The nail, actually.

“The nail” is the term used to describe the middle of the foul line. And it’s the location from which the two teams generated a lot of their 228 points in Game 5 on Wednesday.

After a relatively quiet, seven-point, seven-shot performance in Game 4, Joe Johnson came back with 30 points on 13-for-23 shooting in Game 5. He almost single-handedly got the Nets back in the game after they went down by 26, scoring 26 of his 30 in the second half.

In Game 4, the Raptors did their best to get the ball out of Johnson’s hands when he got it in the low post. In Game 5, the Nets got him the ball away from the low post, where it was harder for Toronto to send a double-team.

Most of Johnson’s catches came at the nail, with a pair of teammates on either side of the floor…

20140502_johnson_nail

Here, Johnson is one or two dribbles away from getting to his floater, which he can shoot over any Raptor that has tried to defend him in this series. He’s 19-for-31 from the area of the paint outside the charge circle.

But if Toronto sends a double-team here, one of his teammates has an open shot or lane to the basket. And since he’s in the middle of the floor, every pass is a simple one.

On the play pictured above, Johnson took John Salmons into the paint and scored over him easily, with Chuck Hayes getting there too late to do anything about it.

The Nets still went to Johnson in the post at times on Wednesday, and he had some success there. But those post-ups mostly drew double-teams…

20140502_johnson_post_dbl

Johnson did most of his damage from the middle of the floor, even when his catch at the nail wasn’t clean.

The Nets got him at the nail with a pin-down screen from the center, which kept Toronto from being able to switch the screen and deny the catch. Here’s Andray Blatche, screening DeMar DeRozan at the weak-side block and allowing Johnson to catch and go straight to the basket for an and-one

20140502_johnson_pindown

If the Raptors sunk into the paint to stop him, Johnson was able to find open teammates on the perimeter.

Johnson played just 14:31 in the first half of Game 5, picking up his second foul midway through the first quarter and his third midway through second. He played the entire second half (save one defensive possession) and still logged more than 38 minutes total.

Brooklyn scored 101 points on the 72 offensive possessions in which he was on the floor, an incredible rate of 140 points per 100 possessions. They scored 12 on 20 possessions (60 per 100) with him on the bench.

Of course, the other end of the floor was Brooklyn’s problem on Wednesday. And it was a problem mostly when the Raptors got the ball in the middle of the floor.

Here’s DeRozan isolating on Shaun Livingston from a spot that’s hard to double-team, a play that resulted in a layup for Jonas Valanciunas

20140502_derozan_iso

Here’s DeRozan getting around Mason Plumlee‘s hedge on a side pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson and getting to the middle of the floor, a play that resulted in a layup for Johnson

20140502_derozan_pnr

And here’s Johnson catching the ball at the nail on a pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry, a play that resulted in another layup for Valanciunas (plus a foul on Paul Pierce).

20140502_ajohnson_roll

Both teams got what they wanted offensively in Game 5. And the team that wins Game 6 will likely be the one that keeps their opponent away from the nail.

Lowry carries Raptors to wild win

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets vs. Raptors: Game 5

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — After Game 4 in Brooklyn on Sunday, Kyle Lowry said of DeMar DeRozan, “This man is becoming a superstar before everybody’s eyes.”

That’s a nice thing to say about a teammate, but Lowry himself has been the Raptors’ best player this season and the best player in this first-round series. On Wednesday, he carried his team to a wild 115-113 victory in Game 5. Lowry scored 36 points, dished out six assists and turned the ball over only once as the Toronto Raptors took a 3-2 series lead over the Brooklyn Nets, barely hanging on after losing a 26-point lead in 12 minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey had a hard time focusing on anything but the negative afterward. His team allowed an amazing 60 points on Brooklyn’s final 34 possessions of the game, making several defensive mistakes.

But they won the game, because they blistered the Nets late in the second quarter and never allowed them to pull ahead down the stretch. Lowry was the key in both cases.

Lowry did most of his first-half damage (21 points) from the perimeter, making something out of nothing on several possessions and completely outplaying Deron Williams. In fact, as Williams committed two turnovers in the final minute of the second quarter, Lowry capped a 26-4 Raptors run by hitting a floater in traffic and then a ridiculous running 3-pointer off the glass at the buzzer.

And when the Nets had come all the way back from 26 down, it was Lowry who drew a brutal foul on Mirza Teletovic 80 feet from the basket to put the Raptors back ahead. He followed that up by drawing a charge on Alan Anderson and, when the game was tied again two minutes later, he hit a gutsy, step-back three to give his team the lead for good.

“When we need an answer,” Chuck Hayes said afterward, “call Kyle. Kyle will figure it out.”

This series is the latest chapter in the rehabilitation of Lowry’s career. He’s a bulldog. He’ll get in your shirt defensively and fearlessly drive into traffic and find a way to get the ball in the basket, even when there doesn’t seem to be space to do so. He may be the best in the league at drawing fouls on both ends of the floor.

Lowry used to be a pain in the *** for everyone around him, teammates and coaches included. But he’s learned to focus his fire and now, he’s just a pain in the *** for his opponent. Watch him closely on any given night and you’ll wonder if the Raptors could have won 20 games without him.

“He’s a hell of a player,” DeRozan said. “The dog in him makes you want to bring your A-game every single night, because you know he’s going to lay it out there with you.”

Lowry has been the most consistent force in what has been an up-and-down series for both teams. And a myriad of injuries hasn’t put any kind of a dent in his relentlessness.

“He’s never going to stop playing,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said.

Against the most expensive roster in NBA history, featuring several players with much more playoff experience, Kyle Lowry has made it clear that he’s the best player in the series, the real superstar of his team. He has them one win from the conference semifinals and he’s not going to stop until they get there.


VIDEO: DeRozan, Lowry discuss Game 5 victory

Raptors take out Johnson, even series

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down how the Raptors blanketed Joe Johnson

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.

Nets, Raptors have some cleaning up to do in Game 3

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Raptors-Nets: Game 3 Preview

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Since the end of Game 2 of their first round series with the Toronto Raptors, the Brooklyn Nets — Kevin Garnett, especially — have been trying to stoke the fire within their fans, hoping for an atmosphere at Game 3 on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) similar to the one they saw in Toronto. But in their favor this time.

“I’m very, very, very eager to see how they respond to the ‘F Brooklyn'” Garnett said after practice on Thursday. “Very, very eager to see how they respond to this kid, sitting in our arena.”

“This kid” was apparently a reference to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who incited a Toronto crowd with his “F— Brooklyn” exclamation before Game 1. Later that day, Jason Kidd said he didn’t know who Toronto’s GM was. Then Paul Pierce thought it was Bryan Colangelo. Now, Garnett is calling him “this kid.” These Nets can troll.

But can they rebound? After allowing the Raptors to grab 19 offensive boards in Game 2, rebounding will be more important than how loud the Barclays Center crowd is. So is how well the Raptors — who have 40 turnovers in the two games — hold onto the ball.

Both the Nets’ biggest issue and Raptors’ biggest issue are on the same end of the floor. And both are somewhat a result of Brooklyn’s defensive scheme.

The Nets’ big men hedge hard high on pick-and-rolls in order to stop Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan from penetrating. It’s an aggressive scheme (similar to that of the Miami Heat) and, with the Nets’ length on the perimeter, it helps force turnovers.

At the same time, it takes Brooklyn’s bigs away from the basket, at least temporarily. Here’s an example of Mason Plumlee 20 feet from the rim in an effort to contain DeRozan …

20140425_plumlee_hedge

 

That play resulted in a put-back dunk by Plumlee’s man, Amir Johnson, who had a clear line to the basket.

The Nets will also switch screens liberally, which can leave a small defender on a big rebounder. Here’s Alan Anderson trying to box out Johnson after Pierce switched onto DeRozan …

20140425_anderson_switch

Result: A loose-ball foul on Anderson and a second chance for Toronto.

Yes, the Nets play small. Yes, their rebounding got worse when they switched to a small lineup in January. And yes, Patrick Patterson did bully his way into a few of his offensive boards. Size does matter and the Raptors know that they have an advantage inside.

But part of the Nets’ rebounding issue is just a trade-off for being able to force turnovers and keep the initial play out of the paint. The same goes for much of Jonas Valanciunas‘ production (32 points and 32 rebounds through the first two games). When his man hedges hard, he can roll to the basket with only a smaller (help) defender in his way…

20140425_valanciunas_roll

Even when the Nets’ big recovers, Valanciunas will be in better rebounding position. But the Nets’ will probably take another double-double from the Raptors’ center if it means keeping Lowry and DeRozan in check.

Still, a lot of Toronto’s offensive boards in Game 2 were the result of defensive breakdowns. There were a few non-screen situations where a Brooklyn perimeter defender needed help from a big, leaving a Toronto big unchecked. There were a few rebounds that just bounced off the Nets’ hands. And on the screens, the quicker the guard can recover back to his man, the quicker the big can recover back to his. These things can be cleaned up.

“You can’t just say that we’re going to defend one way and just give up rebounds,” Deron Williams said Thursday of the Nets’ scheme. “We can’t afford to do that. We have to defend, and part of getting a stop is finishing with a rebound. Until we do that, we’re going to have some problems.”

The Raptors can say the same about turnovers. While some of their miscues can be chalked up to trying to get the pace in their favor or take advantage of Brooklyn’s scheme, there has been some general sloppiness on the Raptors’ part.

Too often, Toronto’s guards have tried to find a lane where there wasn’t one. And too often, their bigs have tried to put the ball on the floor and make plays for themselves. They all sometimes need a reminder to keep it simple, especially when the Nets are aggressively denying passing lanes.

Making shots may be more important, but rebounds and turnovers will play a role in Game 3. The team that cleans up best should have a 2-1 series lead at the end of the night.