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It’s finally here. After a long, six-year wait, there is Toronto Raptors playoff basketball to break down.

Because they basically threw up their hands over the season’s last few games, the Brooklyn Nets fell to sixth in the Eastern Conference to draw the Raptors. Did they tank for it, or did they just not prefer one outcome to another and let the chips land where they may? It doesn’t really matter, and considering Toronto’s seed was up in the air, too, it seems more likely Brooklyn just legitimately didn’t care, regardless of what Andray Blatche may be saying.

There’s plenty to be excited about in this series, but Zarar is going to touch down this afternoon with some of the key storylines in this series (and then Trilliam will come through with a stat breakdown for the nerdz). If you want a high-level take that leans on the opinions of William Lou and four others of relatively high intelligence, check out the ESPN 5-on-5 preview. If you want opinions from me and four basketball bros far smarter than myself, stay right here on this page.

To help set the stage for the series, I exchanged questions with Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game and enlisted the outsider opinion of three other very smart basketball bros. You shouldn’t take Devin’s words lightly – he’s a bright dude, and The Brooklyn Game does an excellent job of removing bias from their analysis of the Nets. I wish I could say the same for my answers, but what can you do?

Series Preview Q&A with The Brooklyn Game

Blake: Like the Raptors only later, the Nets underwent a huge mid-season turnaround. At a glance, the decision to utilize smaller lineups, specifically with Paul Pierce playing more power forward, was a key. What changed for this team when the calendar flipped over to 2014?
Devin: That’s the major difference. Ironically enough, the Nets performed their best once their best player got hurt, switching Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup for Brook Lopez and moving everyone but Williams “up” a position. It spread the floor and allowed Garnett to play at center, which has made a huge difference in their defensive efficiency. I call it “longball,” not “smallball.” Here’s more info on that.

Blake: Most likely double-technical: Tyler Hansbrough and Andray Blatche, Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Garnett or Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Hansbrough?
Devin: Hansbrough and Garnett, easily. Blatche isn’t a technical magnet and probably won’t even play enough minutes with Mason Plumlee usurping his spot in the rotation. Garnett leads the Nets with nine technical fouls on the season despite missing 28 games and playing just 20 minutes per contest. If he doesn’t get into a scuffle with Hansbrough, that’ll be more surprising.

Outsider Interlude

Andrew Unterberger of The 700 Level (and he’s kind of, tangentially, a co-worker, I guess) shared his thoughts in 100 words:

Well, it wasn’t the series I was hoping for on either end–wanted that Bulls-Nets rematch of last year’s epic first-rounder, and thought Lowry/DeMar vs. Wall/Beal had sneaky classic potential–but it’ll do. Hansbrough vs. Garnett will be a bloodbath, Kidd and Casey have their history, and best of all, Kyle Lowry gets to avenge his February snub in favor of Seven-Time All-Star Joe Johnson in grandiose fashion. Clearly, this was the matchup the Nets wanted, and while I think the Raps will give Brooklyn all they can handle, with the way Brooklyn’s been playing since the calendar turned–when they’re actually trying to win, anyway–it’s hard to pick against the playoff-tested Nets vets in this one.

Real talk, though: Who do you think Vince Carter is rooting for?


Series Preview Q&A with The Brooklyn Game

Blake: Kevin Garnett averaged just 20.5 minutes and 6.5 points and played sparingly down the stretch, though the defense seemed to come around when he began playing more center. What do you expect from Garnett in this series?
Devin: I expect him to play more minutes, despite Kidd saying he’ll go with the same rotation. It’s the playoffs, after all. This is why they traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, to lead them in the postseason. 25-30 minutes is my estimate, depending on Plumlee’s foul trouble and Blatche’s level of interest defensively. He’s also their defensive X-Factor — he deters drives to the basket and is by far their best big pick-and-roll/HORNS defender. If the Raptors aren’t scoring in the paint, he’s why.

Blake: What player on the Raptors poses the biggest match-up problem for the Nets on the defensive end?
Devin: Lowry. Duh. He’s an incredible scorer and he’s given the Nets fits in all four games this season. Deron Williams can be a good defender in spurts when engaged, but Lowry’s just too quick and strong for Williams to contain him by himself. They could switch Livingston onto Lowry, but then you’ve got to put Williams on either Ross or DeRozan, which I don’t see happening.

Blake: Number of interesting things Jason Kidd says in this series: over/under 0.5?
Devin: I’m assuming he slips up after one loss and taking the over.


Outsider Interlude

Jared Dubin of just about everywhere – but specifically Grantland, Bloomberg, and Hardwood Paroxysm – shared his thoughts in 100 words:

Remember in December, when we were all making jokes about how bad the Atlantic Division was? Fun times. A Rudy Gay trade, a Brook Lopez injury, and an Indiana slump later, and both Atlantic teams have a pretty legitimate argument that they’re the second best team in the East, regardless of where they’re seeded. This particular series will likely come down to how Toronto handles Brooklyn’s length on both sides of the ball. The Nets’ “long ball” alignment is challenging for a lot of teams, but Toronto has the size on the perimeter to match up with them pretty well. The key match-up, to me, is Paul Pierce and Amir Johnson. Pierce needs to pull Amir out of the lane so he can’t play help D on the Livingston and Joe Johnson post-ups, and Amir needs to victimize Pierce both on the block and in pick and roll situations. Whoever wins that match-up, wins the series, I think.


Series Preview Q&A with The Brooklyn Game

Devin: Despite the fact that they’re the sixth seed, some fans wanted the Raptors matchup because they feel more confident than against the Bulls. Do you think the Raptors are getting undersold? They don’t have a lot of stars, so how are they so good?
Blake: I’m not sure undersold is the right way to put it, because the Bulls are a pretty terrifying match-up for any of the five-through-seven seeds. I certainly wouldn’t want to play them. With that said, there are two factors that seem to make people shrug their shoulders at the Raptors: their best player is ‘just’ Kyle Lowry, and they’re the Raptors. But they’re very good, and Lowry is excellent, even if that fact isn’t universally known. You don’t post the best record in an entire conference, no matter how bad, over four-plus months without some serious talent. It’s more of a system-based, whole-better-than-the-sum-of-their-parts thing, but they’re also underrated defensively and have two, maybe three (Jonas Valanciunas) guys who can be trusted to score when needed.

Devin: It seems like the Raptors immediately got better once Rudy Gay left the picture. Was it that simple?
Blake: At the time, kind of. He was using almost 31 percent of the team’s possessions and had a true shooting percentage of -31, so simply re-distributing those possessions more efficiently was bound to help. Of course, Gay isn’t that bad and was bound to regress (as he did in Sacramento), but the near-instant regression for the Raptors and the introduction of a more holistic brand of ball reinvigorated the team and, just as important as the Gay trade, kept the Raptors from blowing things up further. I could write 5,000 words on this but, in short, Gay’s removal allowed for a bunch of marginal gains (DeRozan improving, Lowry with a bigger role, Ross/Valanciunas development) that added up to be a big deal.

Devin: Who should the Nets be afraid of that might not show up on the first page of a scouting report?
Blake: It depends on how good Lawrence Frank’s daily reports are, I guess. I’d assume the Nets are very familiar with the Raptors, having played them four times but what they may not realize is that since they last saw Toronto, Valanciunas has turned a major corner offensively. Since the March 10 loss in Brooklyn, he’s averaged 14.9 points and 10 rebounds on 57.7 percent shooting, up from 10.2 and 8.5 on 51.4 percent. He’s found his stride in terms of post-up offense and is finally making good decisions as the dive-man with consistency.

Devin: Despite leading his team to a division win, there’s not a lot of national press for Dwane Casey. What’s the skinny on him as a coach? Does he deserve more publicity?
Blake: Casey is tough to evaluate given what’s transpired the past three years. In his first year, the team was tanking, something Bryan Colangelo later admitted to. Still, Casey coaxed a No. 14 defense out of a team that gave Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, Leandro Barbosa, Aaron Gray and Gary Forbes a combined 5,303 minutes. Last year, he did an awful job, but the team also underwent two pretty major turnovers, and the offense made strides. This year, the team is top-10 on both ends of the floor. So he’s now shown an ability on each end twice in three years. What do you make of that? Nothing from the numbers, really. He’s clearly got an effective plan when it comes to defense, and he understands what his players can and can’t do (except for John Salmons). Like any coach, he has issues, like offensive creativity in close games and playing John Salmons 6.6 minutes per fourth quarter. Is this enough words to say “I’m still not entirely sold, but I like him and, at worst, think he’s a solid defensive coach who needs a strong offensive assistant?”

Outsider Interlude

Michael Pina of Fox Sports, True Hoop Network, Grantland, etc, shared his thoughts in 100 words:

A Brooklyn Nets-Toronto Raptors matchup is too juicy for the first round. Both teams are worthy of a spot in the Conference Finals, and both have a quality offense and acceptable defense. Both can go small, and both have capable bench players—ranging from Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson to Andre Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko—who fill their holes and know their place.

The Raptors deserve home-court for their awesome regular season, but this series is as good a candidate as any to go the distance, and even in their advanced age it’s so difficult to bet against Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, and Kevin Garnett in a seventh game. Experience is far from the only factor, but it must be accounted for.


Series Preview Q&A with The Brooklyn Game

Blake: What’s your prediction for the series, and what’s the key reason?

Devin: Let’s put it this way: I expect the Nets to have a 3-2 lead going into Game 6 at home. If they can close out, I’ll take them in 6. But if they don’t, I expect the Raptors to win a Game 7 at home. The Raptors have flown under the radar all season, but they’re a deep, talented team with players that know their roles and execute. It’ll be a tough, close series either way, and I think whichever team wins at home in the last two games is the one that’ll move on.

Prediction for the series… Who you taking, and why?

Blake: Raptors in seven, because WE THE NORTH dammit. I think the experience factor is apparent, though exaggerated. I think the teams are razor-close in terms of overall quality, especially when looking at just their play since the turn of the new year and their four meetings. I think Kyle Lowry is the best player in the series. And I think I’d be a bad fan to not pick the Raptors in a series so close.

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