Prepping for tonight’s final regular season game versus intra-division rival Brooklyn; I found the number 5 permeating throughout my notes.
- Having topped last season’s win total, Toronto is closing in on securing a post season berth after a 5-year absence.
- Raptors stopped Brooklyn 5-game win streaks twice.
- Garnett missed his fifth straight game Sunday with back spasms.
- A Raptor win tonight would increase their division margin by 5 in both the win and loss columns
Before we break it down, John Daigle of ESPN True Hoop Network and blog writer for Brooklyn’s Finest was kind enough to answer a few questions:
At the deadline Brooklyn added Marcus Thornton. He adds versatility, 3-point scoring and ball handling to an already solid bench. Given Johnson, Pierce and Williams could all use some rest heading into the playoffs do you envision Thornton’s role will increase in the final 20 games?
I’d imagine Thornton’s role continues to evolve based on the sheer need for a role player such as himself. Since coming over from the Kings he’s logged 20+ minutes in six out of seven appearances, shooting at a slightly better rate. There’s no denying he’ll sprinkle in a dud here and there (Boston, anyone?), but that goes hand in hand with what he brings to the table. Take for instance his 25-point performance against Milwaukee. The Nets were reeling, the Bucks – for whatever reason – were sticking around and Brooklyn just couldn’t manage to gain an edge. Enter Marcus Thornton, who scored 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter. He fills the void that we all imagined Terry would seamlessly mold into (spoiler alert: he didn’t) and that kind of style will allow him nearly all the freedom he wants on this roster.
Shaun Livingston entered the league when the trend of big point guards was growing in popularity, but a horrendous knee injury seemingly ended his career. Six years and ten teams later, Livingston is once again playing a crucial role as a starter. Aside from the fact Livingston is arguably the NBA feel good story of the year, what intangibles has he brought to the Nets and how much of the recent winning can be attributed to him?
Don’t get me wrong, Livingston has been outstanding recently. I just think when you talk about his season, you can’t go a paragraph without vehemently highlighting what he accomplished while Williams was sidelined. Injuries continued stacking, essentially forcing off-the-radar names such as Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Livingston into the lineup. But look at his numbers during that span: 9.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.7 SPG, 46 FG%. Nothing special, right? Of course not, and all because his impact (mostly) shined at the other end of the floor.
Currently allowing 107 points per 100 possessions, Livingston trimmed that number by an entire six points during his stint as a starter. I feel like he still struggles against smaller, more explosive guards, but hey, who doesn’t? The fact of the matter is, as much as Patrick Beverley (Rockets) is touted as an annoying on-ball defender, Livingston is that with an additional drive-and-kick game. His size allows him to avoid being bullied in the paint and his quickness makes up for the rest. It may be crazy talk, but if we’re ranking potential Net MVP’s, the discussion has to include Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, whatever guy told Jason Kidd to stop wearing ties and Livingston.
With the loss of Brook Lopez, the Nets revamped their style to small-ball with Pierce moving to power forward. Since January, Brooklyn is 21-9 and a game over .500. Small ball limits rebound opportunities, but the Nets now feature a wing heavy starting line-up who excels at scoring and moving the ball. What is the key to stopping this line-up?
Oddly enough, Brooklyn is their own worst enemy. It’s not really about stopping their scoring opportunities, though I’m sure that’s what teams prefer to hone in on. Their weakness is actually on the defensive side of the floor. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve probably seen the numerous small-ball numbers which display their vast improvements and, to be quite honest, those increments are factually dead-on. What they don’t show, however, is how the Nets now choose to gamble with percentages.
Let’s say Lowry receives a Johnson PNR at some point during tonight’s game. With no true center on the court, Brooklyn now makes an effort to overplay each and every pick, essentially assuming which direction the guard will choose to go. If Lowry goes left, the corner defender will creep up, the on-ball defender will take a few steps in and their teammate on the opposite side will, at the least, check the screener for a potential slash. If your head hasn’t exploded, this potentially leaves an open shooter at the opposite key. The thing is, you’re now forced to pass across the court, leaving either enough time for the defense to readjust or allowing the center to gamble on a steal. It’s a tough way to live, but as of now it’s paying off.
Garnett is the captain of Brooklyn’s defense, so how successful can the Nets expect to be in the next 20 games and the playoffs if his back continues to force his absence from the line-up?
Luck of the draw. If the Nets continue to grasp the sixth seed, they’re mostly likely looking at a first round match-up against, you guessed it, Toronto. And considering the youth on the Raptors, Brooklyn, if anything, could hang their hats on their accumulated experience. But if they survive an opening round, you’re looking at a seven-game slug-fest against either Indiana or Miami. The regular season will play itself out accordingly, but without KG, the juggernauts of the East will be an entirely different story.
Toronto sits atop the Atlantic with a 4-game lead and hold a 3-game edge in division wins. With no clear advantage in scheduling, is it safe to say this is a must win for Brooklyn to keep their hopes of winning the division alive or based on Williams comments is their goal simply to qualify as high as possible?
Consistency is clearly important, but right now it’s all about getting better. Guys like Plumlee, Collins and Thornton are going to matter come playoffs, so it’s crucial to continue giving them work. Fortunately, with a seven-game lead over the likes of Detroit (can’t play defense), New York (can’t play defense) and Cleveland (might play defense, but probably not), there’s room to work with. But that’s what makes this final stretch exciting, no?
Point Guard: Williams has a size advantage, however Lowry tends to play like a beast in these types of games (January 27: 31 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals).
Shooting Guard: As per John’s comments Livingston has been brilliant on the defensive end and he’ll likely get the assignment to cover DeRozan who is due for a break-out shooting game.
Small Forward: Johnson presents a tough defensive assignment for Ross who fortunately has enough length to address Johnson’s height. Ross is shooting 69% from behind the arc since returning from his ankle injury (11 of 16).
Power Forward: For the second consecutive game Pierce took a shot to his shoulder and left the game with a stinger, but given the playoff implications I suspect he’ll play. Johnson tweaked his ankle Friday so he’ll need help defending Pierce.
Center: The biggest question tonight is will Garnett play. If Brooklyn wants a remote shot of catching the Raptors he will; if not, it speaks to how serious his back issues are. Last game Valanciunas held his own versus KG (20 points, 13 rebounds). The Nets are abysmal on the boards (29 RPG, 28 ORPG)
Edge: A coming out party for Valanciunas
Bench: Raptor killer: Blatche seems to produce his best results versus Toronto and Anderson will be amped to give it to his old team. Thornton has paid dividends, but following games where he scores 20 points his next game is less productive. Kirilenko will be a game time decision.
Patterson who had the key steal and game winner January, 27 is out (elbow). Novak’s been hot, Hansbrough gets up for these games and Vasquez could be a difference maker. The Nets rank 26 defending the three so expect Toronto to get a bunch up and exploit the gambles Brooklyn makes on defense.
Vegas says: Brooklyn favored by 2, public consensus leaning 51% to Brooklyn, over/under: 196.5
Tamberlyn says: Not since the Carter era can I recall a Raptor team with this type of swagger. They have a chip on their shoulder and they should. Pundits denounced Toronto’s chances of winning the Atlantic or maintaining the third seed, discarding the fact Toronto has occupied that position for the majority of the season. We are witnessing the rise of a young team with laser focus, intent on sending a message to their opposition, the media and the Association.
Tonight’s game will probably be a slug-fest regardless of who suits up. They know Brooklyn is a possible first round opponent and I fully expect Toronto to send the message regarding what Brooklyn can expect should they meet in April. I’m calling for a Raptor win by, (you guessed it) 5 points.
- Last Toronto road loss: February 7
- Last Brooklyn home loss: January 31
- Brooklyn 4-10 in second game of back-to-backs
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