Raptors set for ‘tremendous challenge’ against new-look Nets

February 5, 2021 0 By boss

TORONTO — The last time the Toronto Raptors saw the Brooklyn Nets they steamrolled past them, 150-122, to complete the first playoff series in franchise history as the team’s bench put up an NBA-record 100 points in the win.

Leading that Nets squad were names like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, two players whom the Raptors won’t have to worry about when they see the Nets for the first time this season Friday evening.

No, instead, the Raptors will have their hands just a little more tied up trying to contain the Nets’ new star trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

“I think it’s a tremendous challenge,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after practicing out of a high school gym in Orlando Thursday afternoon. “Obviously, three of the great scorers in the league. That isn’t all they got. They’ve got a lot of players, you know, they’ve got depth, size, obviously. We’re still formulating the game plan but we’ll try to come up with something.”

A lot has changed since the Raptors last saw Brooklyn in the post-season. Not only are the Raptors much different personnel-wise, but the Nets are also drastically different, too.

Durant has returned triumphantly from a year-long layoff recovering from an Achilles injury he suffered, ironically, playing against the Raptors in the 2019 Finals, averaging 30.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and shooting a spectacular 53.3 per cent from the field and 45.2 per cent from three-point range (on just a little over six attempts per contest).

His strong play and overall great recovery story has led to him being named the top all-star vote-getter in the first returns.

“He looks great,” said Nurse. “I wouldn’t notice any drop-off or anything that’s slowing him down or holding him back. He’s one of the world’s great shooters — just unbelievable skill that he has combined with the size to get it off and so pure. I think it looks like he’s fully back to me and he looks fantastic.

“I’m really happy for him… I just like what he brings to the league in general. Always liked him as a player and a person.”

As for Brooklyn’s other stars, they haven’t been too shabby, either with Irving — who has been engaged and playing well after seemingly deciding to take seven games off for “personal reasons” earlier this season — averaging 28.3 points and 5.7 assists on 53.5 per cent shooting (44.7 from three-point range) and Harden — who, of course, came over in a mid-January trade — looking very similar to his usual MVP self with averages of 24.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 12 assists per game in the nine games he’s played with Brooklyn.

Those are outrageous individual numbers for anyone to put up, let alone three guys on the same team. More importantly, the Nets have been finding success since making the four-team blockbuster to add Harden to their existing superstar pair, going 7-3 since Harden first laced up his sneakers for Brooklyn.

When Nurse mentioned the “tremendous challenge” in front of him, he was obviously talking about how to gameplan for this three-headed monster. A daunting task, for sure, but one he’s looking forward to.

“There’s nights when you’ve got kinda multiple gameplans going based on who you’re playing,” the Raptors coach said. “But this is certainly a challenge, for sure. Because, you know you guys have seen, we’ve had some bizarre gameplans for Harden. We probably can’t do that anymore like that, so those are kinda out the window. So we’re gonna have to figure out each one of ’em and see how we’re gonna play it.”

The test the Nets provide with their star triumvirate is one Toronto’s players are looking forward to as well.

“It’s exciting playing against guys like that, man,” said Toronto forward Pascal Siakam. “Every night you go out there and that’s what the league is about, and having super-talented guys that you have to play against it’s just exciting. And for us as competitors, you want to go out there and go lace ’em up.”

But as much (deserved) attention as Brooklyn’s luminary trio will get, the Raptors can’t forget about the team’s role players, either.

DeAndre Jordan is shooting 81.3 per cent from the field, meaning in the limited offensive opportunities he gets they’re nearly all going in the basket, and the floor-spacers, Joe Harris and Jeff Green, are shooting 48.7 and 44.7 per cent from deep, respectively, making sending double-teams to any of the Nets’ stars that much more difficult because these guys can and will punish you for doing so.

In general, the Nets are an obscenely good offensive basketball team, scoring a ridiculous 121 points per 100 possessions since Harden joined the team on Jan. 16. And to put that number into context, the Milwaukee Bucks have the top-rated offence in the NBA with an offensive rating of 118.6. So, the Nets are averaging an astounding 2.4 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games than the best offence in the league.

With all due respect to Nurse’s creative defensive schemes, he and the Raptors aren’t stopping this Brooklyn scoring machine because absolutely no one can. But that doesn’t mean the Nets are some kind of unbeatable juggernaut, either.

Like their Hall-of-Fame head coach Steve Nash, while the Nets are absolutely brilliant offensively, there’s quite a bit to be desired on the other side of the floor.

Since Harden made his Brooklyn debut, the Nets have been the third-worst defensive team in the NBA, giving up a dreadful 118.2 points per 100 possessions.

So, while there will be no stopping the Nets Friday, nearly as much as Brooklyn will be dishing out the Raptors should be able to get back.

“Because they’re going to put up some points so you have to be able to score,” said Siakam. “So I think we’ve gotta do that. Just like they’re talented offensively, they’ve also gotta guard.”

Added Nurse: “You’re gonna have to score. You’re not gonna shut ’em out, that’s for sure, so you’re gonna have to score some points.”

If you like seeing a lot of points scored, Friday evening at Barclays Center should be a fun one.

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