Eventually, the Brooklyn Nets settled in against a Toronto Raptors defense that was No. 2 in the NBA this season, and first among the 22 teams that played in the seeding round games on the NBA Campus in Orlando.
But the head start they surrendered was too much to overcome, especially after the Raptors paired that disruptive defense with some lights-out shooting from 3-point range, with the Nets dropping Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, 134-110.
“We knew what it was coming into this game,” said Garrett Temple. “We understand their strength defensively. I think we didn’t take as many shots or we weren’t as confident in taking the shots when we had them and they had us on our heels a little bit. Obviously, it’s different once you’re in it, so I think it was as advertised early on, but once we realized the fight that we had to play with we were able to attack them obviously a little better late in the second quarter and that whole third quarter.”
Trailing by 33 points in the second quarter, the Nets got as close as eight late in the third, trailing 90-82 after a Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot 3-pointer. But another burst of 3-pointers from the Raptors, who made 22-of-44 from deep for the game, pushed the lead back to 15 points early in the fourth quarter.
“Going into the game we watched film of the opportunities that we would get,” said head coach Jacque Vaughn. “I think the film and the reality met each other head to head. So, our guys were able to feel the speed and the athleticism. I think they blocked a few of our guys’ jump shots. So, we’re going to have to be smart in the way we attack them but I think guys were able to recognize we can get good looks. And we just have to make them pay for them.”
The Nets were down 68-35 with just under five minutes to go in the second quarter before they closed the first half on a 16-5 run. With that, they found some offensive rhythm. With Toronto up by 21 in the third quarter, the Nets put together a 16-4 run to get within 88-79. At that point, the Nets had outscored the Raptors 44-20 since falling behind by 33, and they went into the fourth quarter down nine.
“The biggest part is the transition defense,” said Vaughn of the Brooklyn turnaround. “We shored that up some and they weren’t able to get easy baskets and they had to play against us in the halfcourt offense. That part of it was pretty encouraging to see that we can do it and now we’ll test our discipline and effort to continue to do it for four quarters.”
The Nets shot 15-for-27 in the third quarter alone (55.5 percent) and 26-for-47 (55.3) percent over the second and third quarters.
“Their defense is phenomenal when they’re in a set position, and they’re able to go sit in the halfcourt,” said Joe Harris. “We know that. And our whole thing to start the second half was trying to play with more pace and a lot of that is what we do defensively. So if we’re able to get stops, get rebounds, get out in transition, then we can go against them in more sort of attack mode where we don’t have to go against them in a set defense or halfcourt setting.”
Caris LeVert came in averaging 25.0 points in his six games and Orlando, the last a 37-point game against the Blazers. But he also averaged 9.6 assists over his last three games, and with the Raptors pressuring, he was distributing from the start, with six assists in the first quarter alone on the way to finishing with 15, only the second Net in franchise history to record 15 assists in a playoff game, along with Jason Kidd. LeVert also finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
“They were trapping all of my isos, mid-post, top, all my ball screens so I feel like that was the game plan throughout the whole game,” said LeVert. “I felt like at times we did a great job of attacking that, but we still gotta watch some film and see how we can get some easier shots.”
Luwawu-Cabarrot led Brooklyn in matching his career-high with 26 points, shooting 6-of-9 from 3-point range and 9-of-13 overall with seven rebounds.
“They shrink the paint a lot,” said Luwawu-Cabarrot. “We passed it, we trusted each other. We’ve got to trust each other, we’ve got to pass, we’ve got to keep moving. There is one shot that is open every time in the first five seconds, but we kept on passing the ball and I kept on moving, kept on dribbling, kept on having to help, passing, swing, swing. That’s the way we have to play and that’s how we played. I think my teammates found me and I made shots, so, it was good.”
After the shaky start, the Nets still ended up shooting 46.7 percent for the game. Harris had 19 points, shooting 3-of-5 from 3-point range and 8-of-14 overall with six rebounds, and Jarrett Allen posted another double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Temple added 12 points.
Brooklyn shot just 26.4 percent in the first quarter and trailed 37-20 going into the second. Meanwhile, the Raptors knocked down 11 of their first 20 3-pointers in taking their 68-35 lead with under five minutes to go in the second quarter.
Back-to-back threes from Tyler Johnson and Luwawu-Cabarrot got the Nets going on a 16-5 run to close the half and cut into that Toronto lead, making it a 73-51 game at halftime. Luwawu-Cabarrot had 15 points at the break, making four of his first five 3-pointers, and the Nets had 17 assists on their 19 first-half field goals, eight by LeVert.
With Toronto up 84-63 after two more 3-pointers from Fred VanVleet, who made 8-of-10 from deep and scored 30 points, the Nets broke out for a 16-4 run. LeVert finished a drive and Temple scored five straight — a three-point play and a transition lay-in.
Harris knocked down a 3-pointer in between Toronto converting pairs from the foul line, and then Luwawu-Cabarrot and LeVert converted drives, and LeVert fed Harris curling into a cut down the edge of the lane to bring Brooklyn within 88-79. After Allen banked in a foul line jumper at the buzzer, the Nets trailed 95-86 going into the fourth.
Brooklyn was still within nine after a Rodions Kurucs drive made it a 99-90 game with 10:53 to go. But again it was VanVleet, with two threes in the next two minutes, pushing the Toronto lead to 15 points.
“It's going to be a long series we know that,” said LeVert. “We're not thinking too hard or too long about one game but there's definitely things we can take into game two that we learned from today. Things that will make our job a lot easier out there on the court. We just gotta go out there and do those things.”