I’m skeptical we’ll see much game-changing play from Garnett, who’s got a balky back and whom we’ve barely seen over the past two months. I think Ross and Johnson can hold their own defensively against Johnson and Pierce, and that Toronto’s athleticism will help them avoid major breakdowns on the Nets’ ball swings. The Nets have had trouble curbing point-guard production all season, and now they’ll get both barrels of Lowry, who averaged 22 points, six assists and 4.8 rebounds per game against them on 50/48.1/88.2 shooting splits this season.
The Raptors are a great story and a team that will undoubtedly become an annual staple of the playoff picture moving forward. But it’s rather difficult to bet against a team in the first round that’s led by Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and the offensive stylings of Deron Williams with help from key contributors like Shaun Livingston and Andrei Kirilenko. And here’s the kicker: According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the last time the Raptors won the Atlantic Division and captured the No. 3 seed, they bowed out in the first round against Kidd’s New Jersey Nets.
The Raptors have an opportunity to have their best season ever and then follow it up with an even better one. They’re on their way to being one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and Raptors fans should enjoy this taste, but there’s no need to savor it. Even sweeter things will come.
There’s more than enough evidence to suggest the Nets weren’t even thinking about Toronto when they hatched their late-season lay-down. Brooklyn’s Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov didn’t spend approximately $190 million in salaries and luxury tax charges, the biggest such bill in NBA history, dreaming of conquering Canada in an epic best-of-seven. Prokhorov’s is a team that fancies itself built for the championship conversation. With that in mind, it’s undoubtable that the Nets, in their brash maneuvering to finish as the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed, were looking past the Raptors to what they saw as their best second-round matchup — the second-seeded Miami Heat. Though the Heat are defending champions, the Nets swept their four-game season series against LeBron et al. In other words: The Raptors, when they play their first post-season game in about six years on Saturday, won’t simply be gifting a rare moment of electric exuberance to the citizens of a relative sporting wasteland.
Overall, the Raptors have some conflicting stats. Synergy says Toronto has the fifth highest transition rate of any team in the league. However, they rank 23 in pace this season. The team does like to push the ball into the frontcourt and apply pressure on the defense to get set. The Nets know that they are going to have trouble rebounding against the big frontline of the Raptors, so they might as well send one or two guys back to prevent the Raptors from getting too much time in the half court.Another common form of the Raptors offense comes from spot ups. The Raptors rank ninth in the league in the amount of offense through spot ups this season which is a testament to how much spacing they have on the floor. The Nets can stop this by closing out with a high hand and using their length to put a hand in Toronto’s shooters faces. However, this season the Nets did a poor job of defending spot ups, ranking 28 in that category, per Synergy.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the Raptors are a young, inexperienced team. They’ve heard about too, it’s the narrative that drives this series. Lowry and Amir Johnson account for all 24 games of playoff experience in the Raptors’ starting lineup. Neither have been to the dance in five years, neither have ever started a postseason game. Meanwhile the Nets’ starters have played in 399 postseason games. They have six players who have logged more than twice as many playoff minutes as any Raptor. They’ll be reminded of it over and over again for two weeks and then, should they advance to round two, it’ll be revisited once again. They can’t run from it, not until they prove it’s a non-factor, but give them credit for the effort.
“Man, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder all year. We don’t care. It ain’t going to stop now,” said Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan. “The same chip we had before the season even started, we’ve got it now. Nothing’s going to change, it don’t matter who we’re playing against. At the end of the day it’s a playoff team. Only the good teams make the playoffs, right? You’re going to have to play somebody good so it don’t matter to us.”
It was downright funny, not to mention enlightening, to hear DeMar DeRozan deconstruct the whole experience disadvantage. “I mean, it ain’t like it’s rocket science or nothing,” DeRozan said about the game of basketball in the post-season. “Everybody keeps talking to me like, bringing it up like it’s rocket science or I’ve got to know trigonometry or something. You just figure it out. You just go out there. I’ve been playing this game long enough, I’ve been in the league long enough, been in a lot of situations, so it shouldn’t be hard.” And if you are Masai Ujiri or Dwane Casey, that is exactly what you want to hear from one of your key, young, players. Casey readily admits the game changes once the regular season is put to bed. Everything from more physicality, to more attention to detail, to fewer whistles comes into play.
Whether in Manhattan or Brooklyn, Lowry made sure he made the best of playing on two of the NBA’s biggest stages. Lowry averaged 17.9 points on 42.3% shooting (38% from three) against the league as a whole, but improved to 22 points a game on 50% shooting (48% from three) against the Nets and 23.5 points on 53/48% shooting against the Knicks. Against the Knicks, Lowry made a point of showing owner James Dolan what he was missing (Dolan nixed a deal with the Raptors that would have made both teams’ seasons quite different). When Brooklyn was on the docket, Lowry was mostly a buzzsaw. He made a good final impression against the Nets (21 points, seven assists, eight rebounds in a win) right before the all-star reserves wdere named, but, somehow, the East’s coaches made a huge error in picking Joe Johnson for the final spot over the far more deserving Raptor.
“Good for them,” Ujiri said when the question of whether the Nets tried to orchestrate the matchup was raised. “You know what? We haven’t lost one second of sleep worrying about the Brooklyn Nets. At the end of the day, if we want to be a good team, we have to play good teams. We’re not hoping for anybody. We’re in the playoffs. You have to play. They can do whatever they want. We’ll be right here.” Ujiri agreed the Raptors have been underplayed in NBA circles since their inception, but put the onus on himself to change that. “That’s my responsibility, in some kind of way,” he said. “We have to build a brand that people want to see … We have to put a team together that’s competitive and wants to win. Our guys want to win. They’re competitive. I always say: When we get good enough, people will watch … I’ll tell you one thing: People will watch the Raptors, eventually. People in the States, people here. We want to play. We want to win. We want to compete out there.”
One series win, three head coaches, five springs where the Raptors had chances, some legitimate, to make an impression. For the sixth time in the Raptors’ 19-year history, the franchise will be under the post-season microscope, beginning with Game 1 on Saturday afternoon against the visiting Brooklyn Nets. For the second time, the Raptors enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and Atlantic Division champions for the first time since 2007 when, oddly enough, they were matched up against the Nets when the team was based in New Jersey.
“We’ll see how we handle it,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, declining to give away any state secrets. “When they spread [the floor] with Paul, they’re lethal — a lot like [Oklahoma City] with Durant at [power forward]. There are things we can do to try to counteract that and take advantage of it.” It is interesting that Casey mentioned Oklahoma City. Johnson spent the majority of that game chasing Durant on the perimeter. The likely MVP scored 51 points in a Thunder win, but the Raptors were a series of odds-defying plays away from winning that game, which went into double overtime. “We can go small. But Amir is pretty athletic,” Lowry said. “He’s versatile. I think he can do a pretty good job of guarding guys and keeping Paul in front of him and trying to make Paul shoot over top of him.”
This is a sneaky good series with a lot going on, headlined by the new jacks vs. old hands narrative. To see the fresh-faced and bushy-tailed Raps in the postseason should be reason enough to tune in. Ditto for a chance to check out a Nets team of familiar faces as it kicks off its playoff run. The real draw, though, is just how testy and competitive the season series between these teams turned out to be. Three of the four games were decided by seven total points. The games were appropriately split 2-2 with neither team claiming any significant advantage. It should be a coin flip of a series made all the better by the fact that these teams talk. Any series with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce involved is bound to be chatty, and the Raptors have managed to dial up the game’s tension by playing well and responding in kind.
William Lou, Raptors Republic: The playoff-intensity version of Kyle Lowry is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Lowry is the catalyst behind the Raptors’ superlative chemistry, and he’s the point of attack on both ends of the floor. He leads the league in charges taken, he’s deadly from deep, and he’ll be the one with the ball in his hands when the Raptors need a bucket.
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