Before the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets tipped off their first-round series earlier this week, all eyes were on Caris LeVert.
The Nets entered the season restart short-handed with seven of their 15 players missing, but LeVert carried them to a 5-3 record in their seeding games with averages of 25.0 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game, numbers that earned him a selection on the All-Seeding Games Second Team. He did a masterful job of running Brooklyn's offence without Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, striking an almost perfect balance between looking for his own shot and setting up his teammates with quality looks.
So how has LeVert done so far in the playoffs? It's been a bit of a struggle.
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Through two games against the Raptors, LeVert's scoring is down to 15.5 points on .278/.000/.733 shooting splits. While he's flourished as a passer, dishing out 15 assists in Game 1 followed by 11 assists in Game 2, the Nets are still only averaging 103.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, a rate that would've ranked Brooklyn dead last in offensive efficiency in the regular season.
The Raptors haven't exactly been firing on all cylinders offensively themselves - they came back down to earth in Game 2 following a record-breaking Game 1 - but it's going to be hard for the Nets to make it much of a series if they can't get going offensively with their best player on the court.
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The onus has been on Fred VanVleet to slow LeVert down. According to NBA.com, VanVleet has matched up with LeVert for 9:34 minutes through two games, which is almost double the amount of time OG Anunoby, who has matched up with LeVert the second-most on the team, has spent defending him.
The matchup data points to VanVleet having a lot of individual success against LeVert, holding him to four points on 2-for-11 shooting.
|Defender||Matchup Minutes||Points Scored||Assists||Turnovers|
|Fred VanVleet||9:34||4 (2-11 FG)||9||2|
|OG Anunoby||5:23||4 (2-5 FG)||5||3|
|Pascal Siakam||3:09||2 (0-2 FG)||1||1|
|Kyle Lowry||2:53||9 (3-5 FG)||1||1|
|Serge Ibaka||1:39||6 (2-7 FG)||0||0|
|Marc Gasol||1:29||0 (0-2 FG)||5||0|
|Norman Powell||1:05||2 (0-2 FG)||1||0|
|Rondae Hollis-Jefferson||0:52||2 (1-1 FG)||1||0|
|Terence Davis||0:13||0 (0-0 FG)||0||0|
|Matt Thomas||0:07||0 (0-0 FG)||0||0|
The tape tells a slightly different story.
VanVleet has done his job against LeVert in applying pressure and funnelling him to the right spots on the floor, but it's taken a team effort to contain the 25-year-old. With the Nets lacking other playmakers, the Raptors have been showing LeVert multiple bodies whenever he steps foot inside the 3-point line, to the point where he's constantly seeing double and triple teams.
Consider the following possession. Based on this image, you'd think that LeVert has a relatively straight-line drive to the basket, right?
Norman Powell slides off of Tyler Johnson in the corner to force LeVert to pick up his dribble and Pascal Siakam races over from the weakside to wall off the paint.
LeVert quite clearly has the attention of all five of Toronto's defenders.
The result? A contested midrange jumper that LeVert misses.
The Raptors are living with LeVert taking those types of shots. Of the 36 field goals he has attempted in the series, only five have come at the basket. LeVert is 5-for-14 from the paint (non-restricted area) and 2-for-11 from midrange.
It's not by accident either. Based on effective field goal percentage - a statistic that adjusts for 3-pointers being worth one more point than 2-pointers - those were LeVert's two least efficient spots on the court during the regular season. The Raptors know LeVert is at his best when he's getting to the rim, where he's proven to be a crafty finisher. That's why there's almost always someone standing underneath the rim when he gets into the paint, whether it's Siakam, Anunoby, Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka.
It's left the Raptors vulnerable to offensive rebounds, but the Nets have struggled to convert second chance opportunities.
The Raptors have also been aggressive about picking LeVert up beyond the 3-point line. LeVert isn't a high volume 3-point shooter, but he made 38.7 percent of his pull-up 3-point attempts in the regular season. The Raptors haven't given him many chances to create 3s for himself off the dribble, forcing him instead to settle for those contested midrange pull-ups.
Where LeVert has hurt the Raptors is with his passing. Known primarily as a scorer, LeVert has proven to be a better passer than I think anyone expected when he first entered the NBA. He hasn't been able to get his shot to fall in this series, but he's used all of the attention the Raptors are paying him to create high percentage looks for his teammates.
According to NBA.com, LeVert is creating a whopping 31.0 points per game with his assists through two games. Entering Friday's games, there's only one player in the league averaging more. His name: LeBron James (37.0).
The Raptors are just banking on the Nets not having enough talent around him to punish them for loading up on LeVert in the way that they have.
So far, it's hard to argue with the results.
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