The Toronto Raptors visit the Barclays Center on Monday night for a 7:30 tip-off on TSN against the Brooklyn Nets.

And how’s this for a preface: The Raptors are the only team to beat the Nets in 2014. Yes, the formerly-bumbling Nets have gone on a tear with the flip of the calendar, winning 10 of 11 games, including five straight.

Back on January 11, the Raptors made relatively easy work of the Nets, letting them hang around until the fourth but ultimately blowing them out 96-80. But the Nets were playing the night after a triple-overtime game, had traveled and didn’t play Kevin Garnett or Deron Williams.

It won’t be quite as easy Monday, but there are some similarities. The Raptors are on the road, sure, but they had Sunday off while the Nets played an incredibly emotional game in Boston, the return of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to TD Bank Garden. The close nature of the game didn’t wear too heavily on the Nets, though, as Deron Williams (34 minutes) was the only player to cross the 30-minute mark.

As such, the Nets should be better rested than the last meeting, and Williams’ return is obviously a factor, too.

Oh, and the Raptors will be without DeMar DeRozan, who suffered a sprained foot on Saturday night thanks to that dirtbag Hedo Turkoglu. While the injury doesn’t sound too serious – DeRozan returned to the game, after all – it made little sense to have DeRozan fly in and fly right back, risking further swelling and discomfort. Tyler Hansbrough traveled with the team, which is a good sign for the same reasons, but he’s considered a game-time decision for the 14th game in a row (the hell, T?).

Because I got hit with pre-game coverage duty on short notice, I didn’t have a chance to reach out to a Nets blogger for a Q and A. Luckily, the homie Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game has been doing work on the Nets turnaround, which I’ll quote from below.

(An Aside: Kharpertian sometimes appears for the YES Network on their pre-game show and adds a really nice perspective to the proceedings. While he’s far more talented than I am, I’d love to see Rogers and TSN try and mix things up like this. TSN is going to have to expand their basketball coverage when they lose a major chunk of NHL games soon and a half-hour pre-game Raptors/NBA show in the mold of That’s Hockey or Hockey Central could be a lot of fun and help to educate and draw in Canadian viewers. That’s not to say Canadian viewers are ignorant about basketball – anything but, really – but it seems Canada only has hardcore ball fans and non-fans. The quality of Raptors broadcasts isn’t exactly sterling right now, so it’d be worth trying some new things and mixing in some fresh faces.)

Annnnyway, let’s take a look at some of Kharpertian’s recent notes.

On the team’s reliance on nontraditional small-ball looks in the absence of Brook Lopez:

Sure enough, they’re 6-0 when starting Livingston, Alan Anderson, Johnson, Pierce, and Garnett.

The change has made a staggering difference in Brooklyn’s on-court production. Their 8-1 record is tops in the NBA in the New Year. They’ve allowed a cool 100 points per 100 possessions, tied for the fourth-best defense in the NBA in that span, and they’ve got the fourth-best net margin in the league overall.

They’ve been lauded as a small lineup, but the secret is that they’re not that small: they’re smart, they’re long, and they’re disruptive.

When teams talk about small-ball, they often do it to speed up the game’s pace and get into a quicker offensive flow. Smaller players are normally quicker players, and having guys that can run the floor more effectively at your power positions can get you easy buckets in transition against bigger, slower teams.

Except that’s not what the Nets have done. Pierce isn’t faster than most power forwards, so that speed advantage doesn’t exist. Joe Johnson’s a shooting guard in name only: he’s big even for an average small forward.

The Nets haven’t picked up the pace, they’ve slowed it down: in 2014, they’re playing a tick over 90 possessions a game, down from 94.57 possessions per game heading into the New Year. They’ve scored less in the fast break, not more.

And on the team’s overall improvement in the new Gregorian:

The overall numbers paint a pretty clear story. The Nets have stunted the pace to the tune of four fewer possessions per game, and it’s made all the difference: they’re scoring better and defending better.

The Nets are shooting a near-identical percentage from three-point range, but they’re bombing away, taking nearly six more threes per game. The team’s not rebounding much better, getting to the free throw line more, or turning the ball over less, but they’re shooting, shooting, shooting — and it’s paid off.

The Nets defense is a bit more balanced. They’ve forced more turnovers with Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, and Kevin Garnett in the starting lineup, and Andrei Kirilenko coming off the bench. Their three-point defense is roughly the same, but coming a bit back down to earth after some ridiculous opponent shooting. Their defense in the paint has improved considerably with Kevin Garnett manning the paint.

So yeah, the Nets have turned a corner and are looking pretty good of late, which explains why they’re 4.5-point favorites despite being on the second game of a back-to-back and despite the result a few weeks back. By the way, home teams are generally given three to three-and-a-half points on the Vegas line – this varies, with studies showing the actual effect is anywhere from 2.3 to 3.4 points – so that line indicates that Vegas sees the Nets as roughly one point better than the Raptors on a neutral court.

The advanced metrics don’t quite agree yet, but they’re getting there. The Hollinger Power Rankings, which weight recent performance heavily, still see the Nets as roughly two points worse then the Raptors. That’s largely because even with their hot play, the Nets have been outscored by 2.5-points a night on the season while the Raptors are outscoring teams by 2.3. The ‘recent’ schedule aspect is for the past 10 games (or 25 percent of the schedule), during which the Raptors have still been good, albeit against weaker competition.

Even with the Raptors edge there, you’d expect the Nets to win narrowly given the home-court advantage (without accounting for the back-to-back).

But the game ain’t played on no spreadsheets.

The reality is, with no DeRozan, the Raptors are going to have trouble with Brooklyn’s three-wing starting lineup (alternatively, their two-point guard looks could actually be a blessing in disguise since Toronto is so thin at the wing right now). It’s Terrence Ross and John Salmons…and then Austin Daye and Julyan Stone. Landry Fields and DeRozan are out, so you’re looking at those two or some Steve Novak-Patrick Patterson super-big looks at the three. Luckily, with Pierce relatively slow now, you can survive with Amir Johnson on him for longer stretches.

The situation on the wings with DeRozan out is just too dire for me to give the Raptors the nod, and it really goes to show how fragile this team’s success is if injuries enter the picture. Hopefully DeRozan’s is a short absence, because a five-game west coast trip begins Friday.

Anyway, sorry to be a bit negative coming off a fun Raptors weekend (Terrence!) but I think the Nets’ momentum, home court advantage and somehow-superior depth win the day.

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