BROOKLYN — The Toronto Raptors were tired of being the less physical, aggressive and careful team in their first round series with the Brooklyn Nets. So they flipped the script on Brooklyn in Sunday night’s Game 4 at the Barclays Center and took control of their playoff fate.
Toronto set the tone in the first quarter by scoring 35 points and finished the game by not allowing a field goal over the final six minutes and 11 seconds in an 87-79 win that tied the series at two and sent the Raptors home a resilient and confident bunch.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey’s game plan came together incredibly well: Win turnovers, be more aggressive and physical than Brooklyn, and keep the ball out of Joe Johnson’s hands. Those three keys played perfectly into Toronto’s hands, and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were the reasons why.
Casey said after the game that it was the proudest he’d been of his team all season. One Toronto columnist called Sunday’s win the team’s biggest in over a decade.
“We made stops at the end of the game and we were mixing it up, kept them off balance a little bit,” Casey said
The Nets took a 2-1 series advantage by completely dominating the turnover battle, committing a staggering 9.4 fewer miscues per game than the Raptors before Sunday. Casey and the Toronto players made sure that taking care of the basketball would be their main point of emphasis for Game 4.
“I thought us not turning it over, that was a huge difference,” Casey said. “I think we handled the ball a lot stronger, I thought our disposition was much better against their traps and against their double-teams. We got caught a couple of times but I think for the most part we handled it with strength and poise. I thought we were more prepared for it and handled it a little bit better.”
Brooklyn likes to trap the ball and gamble a little bit on steal attempts, knowing that their help defense and their quick and long personnel will force turnovers. “We know they like to reach in,” Amir Johnson said.
So Toronto held on to the ball a little tighter on Sunday. The Nets, usually a very disciplined team, missed 17 of their final 20 shots and committed six turnovers in the fourth quarter alone. As you’ll see in this graph, there was a big difference in how the turnover battle played out in Game 4.
After forcing just 10.3 turnovers per game before Sunday, Toronto coaxed Brooklyn into 16 while committing just 12 of their own.
“When they started to be aggressive, we were more conscious of that,” DeRozan said. “We were driving and not looking too much for the foul and I think that’s where a lot of our turnovers came from where we were getting stripped when we thought we got fouled.”
DeRozan said that being more aggressive and matching Brooklyn’s seasoned intensity were paramount as well, but it all started with taking care of the ball.
“The coaching staff did a great job adjusting to their traps and we were able to get the ball out of there and find guys,” Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez said after handing out nine assists with just one turnover. That discipline, Vasquez said, was the biggest key in the game.
“Everybody believes that they could make a pass or a play for a teammate and not over-dribble, and that’s been a big part of our success,” Nets head coach Jason Kidd said before the game. But in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Kidd said his team got out of character and started making individual plays and not team plays.
“It shouldn’t happen, but I thought we rushed a lot,” Paul Pierce, who scored at least 20 points in a playoff game for the his 71st time in his career, said. “I thought turnovers, a combination of those two things, pressing. You get in a playoff situation, one guy or two to three guys wants to do it on their own instead of just running our offense, executing. I think we got caught up into that.”
Lowry scored 22 points and led all players in plus/minus with 14 despite a bum knee and playing for the final several minutes of the game with five fouls.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around as a guard as far as fighting through things,” Casey said. “He’s been terrific in so many ways. Probably last year or two years ago at this time he probably couldn’t play with five fouls. He’s more mature now, he’s more focused, he’s helping players when they’re down and not playing well. His leadership has come around and his maturity is huge for all of us.”
DeRozan scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the first half, and when Brooklyn decided to deny him the ball in the second half, DeRozan concentrated on locking down Johnson.
“With Kyle, I know I had to pick up the offense early, so I did that and tried to come out aggressive and I knew they were going to change up to try to get the ball out of my hands,” DeRozan said. “But I knew I could do some things on the defensive end, especially on Joe.”
Going into Sunday’s contest, Johnson was second in the Eastern Conference in playoff scoring, averaging 23.7 points per game. In Game 4, Johnson was limited to seven points on 2-for-7 shooting and the Nets as a team missed 16 of their 20 3-point attempts.
“They just weren’t going to let him play ball tonight,” Kidd said of Toronto’s defense on Johnson. Casey said it was important to give Johnson a bunch of different looks, whether different defenders, double-teams or other schemes.
That aggressive and physical presence the Raptors were looking for came up in a huge way in the fourth quarter. While Brooklyn has outscored Toronto by a combined 23 points in the third quarter this series, the Raptors are a plus-20 in the fourth, the quarter that center Jonas Valanciunas described as a mini game in terms of its importance.
Over the final dozen minutes, the Raptors took several key charges and grabbed a vast majority of the important rebounds while holding the Nets to just 12 points.
“We were helping each other, we were rotating, we were double-teaming. That was effort,” Valanciunas said.
Late in the game, Toronto made eight straight stops on defense and sealed the game on a Vasquez three, a Lowry skyhook over Kevin Garnett and free throws.
“We were playing for our lives, man,” Vasquez said in his unique fashion, saying that those late stops were all about being more physical than Brooklyn.
“We were much more physical, our double-team schemes were a little bit better, we were much more aggressive on the ball and we tried to make them get the ball to other players,” Lowry said.
Brooklyn had all the momentum going into the fourth quarter and then, as guard Shaun Livingston said, the team ran out of gas. The young Raptors are gaining experience and confidence while executing Casey’s smart and crafty game plans. The scariest part for Brooklyn? Lowry said that Toronto hasn’t played its best basketball yet.
Now Toronto is in control of a best-of-three series, led by a blossoming head coach and his young players who are gaining confidence with each well-executed game.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.