Joe Johnson, Nets need to find a way to beat Raptors' smothering defense

Joe Johnson is called for an offensive foul

Joe Johnson is called for an offensive foul against Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan late in the second half during Game 4 of their first-round playoff series at Barclays Center on Sunday, April 27. (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Visibly frustrated after being smothered all night by the Raptors in Game 4, Joe Johnson grew weary of inquiries searching for clarification.

His huge dip in production -- in part because of the defensive blanket energetic Toronto tossed on him -- seemed out of character for the team's lone 2013-14 All-Star representative in such a big game. After averaging 23.7 points in the series' first three games, Johnson was reduced to looking as if he had a rugby ball in his hands.

The Raptors sped toward him like train-bound commuters at Penn Station after a boarding announcement. The result: seven points, the fewest he has scored since March 1. Seven shots, the fewest he's hoisted since Jan. 24.

"They are doubling and tripling," Johnson said after the Nets' 87-79 loss Sunday, which evened their Eastern Conference first-round series at 2-2 heading into Game 5 at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday. "Ain't much I can do."

Johnson was a marked man. He's been the centerpiece of the Raptors' defensive game plan from the get-go, but they executed their scheme to a level they hadn't previously reached.

"Their defense was a big difference," he said. "I mean, I looked out and there were three guys coming at me once. But I just tried to make the right play, man. It forced other guys to make plays, and down the stretch, we just couldn't come up with the big play."

The Raptors confused the Nets at times by switching up in double-teams and traps against Johnson, trying to neutralize his size and explosiveness. In a 12-point fourth quarter, the Nets missed their last six shots, didn't have a field goal in the final 6:12 and went scoreless in the final 4:58.

Finding ways to keep Johnson in good enough position to make a play, and burning the Raptors when they do close in on him, could be paramount to the Nets' success.

"Well, he's going to draw a lot of attention," Nets coach Jason Kidd said Monday. "So sometimes it's difficult when you have two or three guys around you and you don't want to force things. That's something we have to use to our advantage. If he can't touch it, if they have two or three guys paying attention to him, other guys have to step up."

The Raptors are quickly adapting to the subtleties of playoff basketball, figuring out the importance of following the blueprint that defensive-minded coach Dwane Casey has lined up for them. It remains a never-ending chess match.

"Jason's making adjustments with his offensive situations," Casey said Monday. "So it changes who is helping and who's supposed to be getting those double-teams if we are double-teaming. Those things are part of the growing process of a young team.

"That's the hard thing about being a young team in the playoffs. A team like Brooklyn has seen everything, they've experienced everything. They've had every atmosphere you can have in the playoffs and some of them have won championships. So that's the advantage you have as an experienced team and the disadvantage you have as a young team. But our guys are growing and we are learning as we go."

Looks as if they're understanding their lesson in regards to pinning Johnson down, and Kidd apparently has no plans to counter that attention by putting Paul Pierce in the post a little more.

Said Kidd: "We're fine with all the attention on Joe."

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