I don’t know whether or not you’ve heard about it, but the Raptors are in the playoffs. It’s kind of a big deal. The city is buzzing with anticipatory anticipation. That last sentence isn’t a typo, I assure you. Poorly written, perhaps, but not a mistake. For while fans of the Raptors are falling all over themselves with excitement, the city as a whole is waiting for a couple of wins before it jumps on board. Toronto is one of the biggest bandwagon sports towns that way. They’re like overly cautious investors who want to wait for a sign of a sure thing before jumping on board. Just look at last year’s first round playoff “run” by the Leafs. When the Leafs drew the top rated Bruins, people were excited(ish) that the Leafs made the playoffs, but that excitement was tempered by the expectation of a quick series loss. By the time the Leafs had stretched the series to 7 games people were ready to tattoo blue maple leafs across their foreheads (Let’s not dwell on how all of that ended. I know I’ve already forgotten. What are we even talking about?…). The same was especially true for the Blue Jays, who have always enjoyed support but have never really been a big deal. Except of course for that 92-93 stretch when they won back-to-back World Series and they were the biggest thing that had ever happened to this city. Those guys were rock stars. Third grade kids growing up in otherwise casual sports fan houses knew the names of all three starting outfielders. Joe Carter got a sandwich at McDonald’s named after him. Roberto Alomar became a juice magnate. Who doesn’t remember which juice it is that has the McCain punch? They were the BIGGEST deal. If you were born in the mid eighties in southern Ontario like I was, you very well might have grown up thinking that Toronto was more of a baseball than hockey crazed place. For a few years, it felt that way.
And in 2001, it almost happened with Vince Carter and the Raptors too. That playoff run was a shared excitement that hasn’t been matched since for Raptors fans. Everybody was on board. There’s a joke to be made here that 20 years of fandom with one 2nd round playoff loss being the farthest we’ve ever gotten kind of makes us the 40 year-old virgin of sports fans. There’s a truth to that. But that’s also a part of why this entire city is timbering on the precipice of bandwagon insanity. This city has so much (potential for)enthusiasm for it’s sports teams. But they’ve been hurt before. Give them a reason to believe though, and the entire GTA will be deked out in purple. Kyle Lowry’s name, once rarely known to sports fan civilians, will suddenly be overheard in the lineups of thousands and thousands of Tim Horton’s from Oshawa to Aurora, Uxbridge, Ancaster and Orillia. Mark my words; if the Raptors get two games up in this series, millions of people are suddenly going to turn into the ‘da bears’ superfans from SNL. Chris Farley is our mayor already. And you know what? I couldn’t possibly be more excited about it.
(The everybody being superfans bit, not the Tommy Boy as mayor one. That one dances a little too close to the line between tragedy and hilarity for me, with neither one probably being what you’re looking for in a leader. Amir Johnson for Mayor?)
Match-ups to watch in the series:
Let’s get into the basketball nerdery of things here.
- For all the talk about how Brooklyn has been the best team in the Eastern Conference for the last 3 months, what do they have to show for it? An offense that is exactly league average at 106.7 points per 100 possessions and a defense that is ranked 20th overall. 20th overall is also where they rate in SRS, a stat that ranks each team based on an amalgamation of their point differential and strength of schedule. That same rating system has the Raptors at 12th, with a positive 2.55-point differential compared to Brooklyn’s -1.58.
- Thank you to the Toronto Sun for their Raptors vs. the Dinosaurs headline. The joke here, in case you were simply confused by the oxymoron that the Raptors are also dinosaurs, is that the stars of the Brooklyn Nets are old. There is truth to that. The question is, can the Raptors young, explosive players exploit that? The Raptors have played at an equally slow pace of play as the Nets this year, focusing on defence and half-court offence instead of transition scoring (which is a pity, given that they scored at an elite efficiency all season in transition). The Nets, acknowledging the limitations of their age, have accounted for this hole in their armour. They play the same philosophy of transition defence as the famously old Boston Celtics that form half of their team did. Instead of challenging for offensive rebounds, they start to retreat towards defence almost as soon as they’ve put up a shot. This sacrifices offensive rebounds for a set defence. It certainly helps on the one hand, as the Nets have the 8th best transition defence in the league, but it gives up on offensive rebounding. For a team as prone to isolation perimeter play, occasional chucking and 3-point shooting as the Nets are, this accounts for why they get blown out as badly as they do sometimes when they’re not shooting well or creating baskets offensively. They rank amongst the league’s worst in second chance baskets. That’s very good news for a Raptor’s defence that has stingy all season. It just isn’t great news for those helping for points in bunches out of transition. Running might be a smart move to tire Brooklyn’s old legs, but they’ll be ready defensively.
- The Raptor’s defence matches up remarkably well against Brooklyn’s offence. The exception here is isolation defence, where the Raptor’s finished 24th in efficiency according to synergy sports. That’s OK. Brooklyn is much more scary on paper than in reality in one on one scoring. Joe Johnson might get you a big clutch bucket when you need it out of isolation, but his scoring has been much more reputation than reality this season. 16 points a game, 2.7 assists on 22% usage is not the stat line of someone poised to take over a series. Think Rudy Gay, and you’ll calm down a bit. He’s also scored a below average 0.88 points per attempt out of isolation. For whatever reason, Johnson has largely disappointed in the playoff ever since leaving Phoenix. Without Steve Nash’s ball handling wizardry and a fast offensive system that creates open shots, Johnson’s career playoff 3point shooting percentage is almost 10% lower than his impressive overall career shooting percentage. Thats because defences kick into overdrive in the playoffs and every shot that isn’t well created is very well challenged. Hero ball doesn’t work. Sorry Joe, but I’m not scared.
- Johnson hasn’t been great out of post-ups either. If Brooklyn’s game plan is really to post up it’s guards, as some have talked about, then this series could be over quickly. Shaun Livingston has been the Net’s best isolation player all year. No, seriously. But only in post-ups. He’s been well above average in post-ups, compared to 3pt shooting, where he puts up 16% from deep. Yikes. The post-up efficiency is a real weapon, though not one thats going to win a series. Post-ups eat up about 10% of Brooklyn’s offence, and Livingston takes about 10% of those post up opportunities. For those of you who like math, please share with the class that that means Livingston post-ups account for 1% of Brooklyn’s offence. When it comes to defending those post-ups, Toronto fans should be proportionately worried. Post-ups are about footwork offensively and strength and positioning defensively. Kyle Lowry is 7 inches shorter than Livingston, but almost 20 pounds heavier. Vasquez is 6’6. Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan are both tall, long and athletic, and Amir Johnson’s help rotations to the post are as well timed as anyone in the league. Valanciunas has looked like a completely different defender over the last few weeks with his timing as well. He isn’t an elite rim protector by any means, but the result of how much space his huge body occupies when he’s in the right place at the right time has a big impact. Brooklyn is going to die a slow, inefficient death if it makes this series about post play.
- Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose are two of my favourite people. Having said that, I don’t always agree with Simmons on basketball predictions and I cringe more than agree with some of Jalen’s conclusions. This week there was a major exception. In their playoff preview for Grantland, they pointed out how Kyle Lowry is the best player in this series and, more importantly, is the type of player having the type of season to completely take over the series. My name is Andrew Thompson, and I approve this message. Couldn’t agree more on this point with Bill and Jalen. Lowry is an animal; we know this. He’s going to abuse either Livingston or Williams on defence. He’s going to eat whoever he covers alive. We’ve only seen Lowry’s intense on ball defence in brief moments when needed this season, as the team defence as a whole has been much better and he’s carried a larger offensive role. But Kyle Lowry is one of the 5 best on-ball defenders in the entire NBA when he’s engaged, and he will be. My bold prediction is that he gets to the line 8+ times a game in this series too. He got 5 free throw attempts a game this season attacking the basket in the Raptors furious fourth quarters. Except to see that again.
- If DeMar and Lowry combine for 15 free throws a game, which they very well could against a Brooklyn team that is one of the most foul prone teams in the league, watch out. It’s those old legs again. Reaching in instead of moving their feet, or fouling instead of giving up a basket once you’re already beat. The Nets only plus defenders are either in their late thirties in Pierce and Garnett, or their mid-thirties with injuries like Kirilenko. Kyle Lowry and DeRozan can abuse this defence by attacking out of the pick and roll. Make the defence bend and then take it to the rim. Play off that with the spot-up 3 point shooting that the Raptors have done at an elite efficiency this season and have Johnson and Valanciunas eating up the Nets porous rebounding with offensive boards and put-backs and you have your recipe. Let’s see if they can deliver.
- Playoffs. This is awesome.