There was a very entertaining basketball game going on between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets on Friday when all of a sudden it became secondary.
Nets star Kevin Durant left the game and then left the floor midway through the third quarter, not to return.
The reason? Health and safety protocols, which is 2020-21 NBA-speak for either a positive COVID test, an inconclusive test or that Durant was identified as being at risk due to contact tracing.
All of which was doubly strange since Durant was escorted off the floor during pre-game warmups at Barclays Center because even though both of his game-day tests had been clear, there was a question that he may have been in close contact with someone with a positive or inconclusive test. He came off the bench for the first time in his 14-year career, taking the floor again midway through the first quarter.
Why Durant was not cleared, cleared and then ruled out isn’t known, but it tossed a wet blanket over the game, which Toronto won 123-117.
It also introduced a cloud over the immediate future of both teams. If Durant wasn’t safe to play, what impact did he have on his team and the Raptors during the 19 minutes he was out there? And can those questions be answered in time for the Raptors to be cleared to travel to Atlanta after the game for their matchup against the Hawks on Saturday night?
In game where the Nets stars had top billing, it was the Raptors’ big names that ended up dominating. Lowry was the engine that drove a 13-5 fourth-quarter run that was the key to Toronto getting over the top. He finished with a season-high 30 points on 18 shots, including 6-of-9 from three, while adding seven assists. He had plenty of support from Pascal Siakam, who took advantage of the Nets’ lack of interior presence to put up 33 points and 11 rebounds for a season-high of his own.
Meanwhile, it was a Fred VanVleet three – his first of the game after his record-setting 54-point night on Tuesday — with 1:46 left that put Toronto up six and left them in good position down the final possessions of the game. With the win – the Raptors’ third straight — Toronto improved to 10-12 and moved to within a half-game of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors shot 50.5 per cent from the floor and 13-of-32 from three but limited themselves to 10 turnovers.
The Nets shot 49 per cent from the floor and 17-of-42 from three but turned the ball over 18 times and didn’t have any of their big guns score more than 17 points, with Joe Harris leading the way with 19.
Apart from the strangeness around Durant, the game unfolded somewhat as advertised, and it was as entertaining as might have been expected.
Even with just 19 minutes from Durant, the Nets were still able to put up points in bunches, and for all the defensive emphasis the Raptors like to bring to the floor, they needed to score to keep up. Their offence did its part as Toronto was able to take a 92-90 lead into the fourth quarter and was able to keep up with the Nets down the stretch. Heading into the fourth, the Nets were shooting 53 per cent from the floor and 13-of-31 from deep, granted, but the Raptors forced 15 turnovers to score 18 points and shot 50 per cent from the floor while shooting 9-of-20 on their own threes.
The Nets can get what they want, it seems, but they give it up, too.
For the most part it hasn’t hurt them all that much. Before hosting the Raptors the Nets were 7-3 since the Jan. 16 trade that brought Harden over from Houston, even while giving up 118.2 points per 100 possessions. Scoring 121 points per 100 possessions will do that for a team, and Brooklyn is just getting started.
“We still have a long way to go,” head coach Steve Nash said before the game. “But for an early review I mean it’s been really positive and just the fact how willing they are to share and to root for one another and, you know, that’s the foundations of something special.
“Now we have to put in the hard work and learn from our mistakes and create a vision that becomes more and more clear and simple as we go along to produce it the way we want to but you know the building blocks are there.”
But the defence?
“It’s still early for this group, but we know that is an Achilles heel,” said Nash. “That’s something that has to be a priority for us.”
Maybe, maybe not.
While other teams have to manufacture offence, the Nets seemingly score at will. It’s not just that Irving and Durant are both scoring upwards of 28 points a game, averaging 50 per cent from the floor, 40 per cent from three and 90 per cent from the free-throw line, or that Harden has averaged a league-leading 12 assists a game with Brooklyn while scoring 24 points a game himself. It’s that Harris is shooting 49 per cent from three and DeAndre Jordan is shooting 81 per cent from the floor, feasting on putbacks and lobs against scrambled defences.
But what choice is there but to send additional defenders against the Nets’ big scorers?
“If you don’t help, then you’re not gonna stop ’em,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They’ve got three guys that can’t be guarded one-on-one. So you’ve gotta help. You’ve gotta trust your help and your rotations, and you’ve gotta do it. We gotta not get caught up in thinking that you can’t help. You have to guard the ball hard and you have to be in your help positions and if somebody goes by you, then the rotations start, and you’ve gotta be really good at ’em. Really good.”
The Raptors were all of that in the first quarter, as they held the Nets to 23 points and forced six turnovers, which the Raptors turned into 11 points, mostly in transition as they led by nine. But the Nets’ full arsenal was on display in a six-minute stretch during the second quarter when Brooklyn scored 28 points as it fought back from a 17-point deficit to cut the Raptors’ lead to a point.
For the quarter, the Nets scored 40 points on 65 per cent shooting, including 7-of-10 from deep with 12 assists on 13 made field goals. Put another way, the Raptors scored 33 points while shooting 58 per cent and 5-of-8 from three and lost ground.
Regardless of your allegiance, it was fun to watch. It seemed like every time the Nets came down on offence, there was another leak in the Raptors’ defensive shell. If Harden wasn’t stepping into a three from the top of the arc, he was breaking down the defence and finding Jordan for lob dunks. Irving was quiet until he turned on a dime to attack, draw and lob to Jordan again.
Toronto led 67-63 at half, but had been put on notice. The Raptors rose to the challenge, though. They stayed committed to their defensive effort and made just enough plays down the stretch to keep the Nets mostly contained – though Brooklyn missing Durant probably contributed to that.
What that means for the Raptors in the coming days is uncertain.
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