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FILM STUDY: Garrett Temple is the Brooklyn Nets’ unforeseen X-Factor

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be clear about something: Game 1 of the Raptors-Nets first-round series was lost in the first 24 minutes of play. Toronto flexed their title-winning chops on a truly exasperated Nets offense, pressing Brooklyn’s “bubble” creators with their humming defensive machine of hard hedges and blink-of-an-eye traps, thereby placing scoring duties on Brooklyn’s understudy options. Compared to the Charmin Ultra Soft Portland defense the Nets faced in their final seeding game, Toronto’s harmonious and almost laughably-switchable nature was inhumane cruelty personified on a basketball court.

Here’s what Joe Harris had to say to our Anthony Puccio about Toronto’s aggressive nature…

“They were definitely just the more aggressive team, both offensively and defensively to start. They ended up jumping out on us and the momentum shifted a little bit. It ended up getting up by 30 at one point. We definitely dug ourselves a hole there. They were definitely the more aggressive team on both sides of the ball.”

Take a look at 35-year-old Marc Gasol in the clip below. As the Nets attempt to provide LeVert some needed space to elevate into his now-trademarked midrange pull-up game with a double drag (two screens set in transition), notice how the Spaniard with the wonderfully voluminous flow reads Brooklyn’s fast-break offense like a book, “shows” by stepping around the screening Jarrett Allen to meet Caris LeVert on the other side, only to rotate all the way back to the basket and contest Joe Harris’ potential layup… all without fouling. Reminder: He’s thirty-freakin’-five!

Toronto smothered Caris LeVert for all 48 minutes of play, but to the potential third star’s credit, he countered, tossing out a career-high 15 assists. His abiding commitment to involving his teammates was one of the few Brooklyn positives, aside from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s scoring-hot three-point shooting (6-of-9 from deep in Game 1), as he continued to smolder restart nets with increasing dependability.

Still, as a team, the Nets shot a combined 31 percent from three in juxtaposition to Toronto’s blistering 50% accuracy. That discrepancy will remain should the Nets’ supporting cast continue to whiff on the freebies.

All of which brings us to Garrett Temple, who shot just 1-for-10 from behind the arc in Game 1, yet finished in a tied with Joe Harris as Brooklyn’s most efficient starter according to plus-minus (Temple recorded a -2 on the afternoon). Temple’s duality was a spectacle to behold; he was both the Nets best individual defender and also their biggest liability on offense. 11 years into his NBA career, and Temple is suddenly the biggest X-Factor to the hopes and dreams of a playoff team that has bested the odds every step of their journey.

Temple’s defensive acuity will necessitate him on the floor throughout the entirety of this series. He’s arguably Brooklyn’s best “bubble” screen navigator, with the length to potentially bother both of Toronto’s long range-friendly guards. As an NBA team, you’re lucky if one of your main creators can rain bombs from 30-feet out. The Raptors, unique as unique can be, boast two of such players thanks to Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, along with three stretchy bigs in Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. For rim protection purposes, Jarrett Allen will need to hang back in drop coverage due to the Nets’ lack of secondary basket protection (Rodions Kurucs and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are far more likely to foul probing Raptors than actually block shots). As Brooklyn’s only guard 6’5” or taller (aside from the overtaxed and overburdened Caris LeVert), Temple is also Brooklyn’s best option when hoping to contain popping Toronto bigs on switches.

A great example of Temple’s conceptual understanding on defense is shown below. With 5’11” teammates Chris Chiozza stuck in a disadvantageous matchup with 6’7” 235-pound wing OG Anunoby on the low block, Temple bails out Brooklyn’s backup point guard with a well-timed dig and vise-grip clamp onto the basketball, eventually leading to a backcourt violation in Brooklyn’s favor.

In one of the few instances that the Nets capably halted the Raptors humming transition offense (Toronto posted 19 points to Brooklyn’s 16 in fast-break scoring), below, Temple shadows the surging Fred VanVleet, backpedaling like Jalen Ramsey at a combine. Notice how Temple refrains from planting his feet after a quick head-fake and in-and-out dribble from VanVleet, eventually engulfing the jitterbugging combo guard with those quick-twitch hands.

Garrett Temple comprised a whopping (near-) third of Brooklyn’s 29 total three-point misses. This was no mere accident. 14.3% of opponents’ shots come from the corners against the Raptors (the most of any bubble team), which normally would be seen as a bona fide soft-spot in Toronto’s championship armor. And yet, Toronto is still finding ways to hold foes to just 33.9% combined shooting from deep, fifth-best of any ball club invited to the Orlando restart. On the outside looking in, how are these pesky Raptors managing this? These numbers don’t align!

Their game-plan is simple: Let players like Garrett Temple, a career 34.7% distanced presence, hoist all the long-range shots they could ever want.

Below, OG Anunoby and Marc Gasol “ice” this high pick-and-roll between Rodions Kurucs and Caris LeVert by pressing the Nets’ de-facto star to the sidelines with swarming arms aplenty. Caris dishes to his release valve, Rodions Kurucs, now positioned at the top of the key in shooting position. As Fred VanVleet lurches toward Rodi, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot cuts baseline, thereby dragging Pascal Siakam away from the left corner to sniff out the tip-toeing Frenchman. From there, Rodi makes the right play by finding Temple creeping deep into the corner, who misses the open look.

Here’s another below. After the handoff action between Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert is extinguished by three Raptor defenders, Caris LeVert finds Rodions Kurucs on the outlet pass, who (successfully!) ball-fakes, drives and kicks back to LeVert at the top of the key. This nearly triggers a Toronto “X-Out,” which is when multiple weakside defenders swap rotations and form an “X”-shaped pattern of recovery. OG Anunoby rotates away from Temple and onto LeVert, and Kyle Lowry almost swaps onto Temple, yet decides to stay home on Joe Harris in the corner, likely realizing a wing three from Temple is exactly the type of shot his Raptors are looking for.

Per NBA stats, Garrett Temple went 0-for-7 on “wide-open” threes in Game 1. Remember, in the all-seeing eye of the Raptors, this is by design. In order for his Nets to stay afloat in the series, Temple will need to connect on his “gimme” long-range opportunities. Brooklyn has four more chances at taking down this Toronto juggernaut, and Garrett Temple must be prolific as a spacer in four of them in order to compete.

To be clear, my goal is not to bully Brooklyn’s 34-year-old veteran into submission. It’s more to point out how integral his performance will be when competing with one of the league’s best top-to-bottom grinders. Eleven years in, and with stints in Italy and the G-League, he’s the X-Factor to the ultimate underdog of the 2020 playoffs. You couldn’t write a better script if you tried.

Jacque Vaughn said it best after the tough loss.

“I did like the way our group responded after halftime and accepted that first punch from Toronto. The rounds will continue.”

The rounds will continue. Set to be left alone on an island for a majority of this first-round series, Garrett Temple has a chance to alter the winds of fate against the mighty Raptors.