nets-raptors1

Game 1 was all about how the young, inexperienced Raptors would respond to the bright lights of the playoffs. They failed.

Game 2 was about how this young team would respond, when the lights dimmed a little bit. They succeeded.

Game 3 was about how this inexperienced squad would handle a hostile road playoff game. They, and the would-be hostile crowd, failed.

Game 4 was about answering the call with their backs against the wall. They succeeded.

On Wednesday, the series returns home to Toronto and the Air Canada Centre, and there are far fewer easy narratives to shoehorn the game into.

Experience has been accumulated, adjustments have been made, the lights have dimmed and it’s now a best-of-three series. The Raptors have home-court, sure, and that may be the deciding factor given how tight these teams are – they’re now 4-4 against each other and the total point differential is close to nil. That experience edge Brooklyn had? Well, it’s still present, but it’s naturally shrunk in relative terms:

Experience Playoff MIN Before Playoff MIN Now
Toronto 2504 3467
Brooklyn 19487 20447
Tor % of Brk 12.80% 17%

exp

The series now comes down to execution and, dare I be so cheesy, who wants it more. There is no more room for error, learning on the job or moral victories. It’s win twice in five days or go the hell home for the summer.

“It’s not going to be all smiles and bubblegum and fruitcakes tomorrow night. It’s going to be a street fight,” as head coach Dwane Casey put it on Tuesday.

He’s not wrong. As someone who is generally analytically inclined, I tend not to buy in to simple narrative as much as the next person. Here’s an example of what I mean, taken from a friend’s Facebook page:

Last night as the final seconds ticked away in the Kings/Sharks game, the CBC guys noted three things:

1 – That the Kings, who have won three straight, have wrestled momentum of the series away from the Sharks.

2 – That the Kings have become just the ninth team to force a seventh game of a series after going down 3-0.

3 – That the Kings could become just the fourth team to complete the comeback.

Now, whatever happens in Game 7 aside, we can deduce from the second and third points that teams that came back from 3-0 down to force a Game 7 are 3-5 in that Game 7.

I guess unlike the Kings, the five teams that lost Game 7 after winning three straight didn’t have adequate momentum…

That’s obviously some very flawed narrative thinking. However, suggesting that the final three games of this series are going to amount to a “street fight” really isn’t. The adjustments that have been made have been largely marginal so far – a change in coverage here, a wrinkle in a standard set there, a rotating cast of players trying to slow Joe Johnson, and so on. The Raptors’ most obvious adjustment right now is to utilize the pick-and-roll more, while Brooklyn is probably hoping the 25 percent mark from long range will eventually regress. There are other adjustments, of course, and plenty of small wrinkles that could alter the way each game looks.

What won’t change, however, is that these teams are razor-close in terms of overall team quality. There’s simply no debating it eight games into a season series that has shown no edge for either side.

In calling this a “street fight,” Casey, I think, is saying that to win, both teams are going to have to leave everything on the floor. There can’t be easy turnovers and miscommunications on defense, Shaun Livingston can’t be left alone for weakside cuts and easy layups when the Raptors show double on a Johnson post-entry, Terrence Ross can’t shoot 0-for-the-series and keep firing away (and I think you’ll see his leash cut pretty quickly in Game 5 if he doesn’t come out strong). The series has been physical and has left a bit too much in the hands of oft-terrible officiating crews (and let’s be clear: the referees have been bad in both directions, such that it makes it hard to discern any bias), but that’s the way it’s going to play out over the next five days. It’s going to be physical, and the tested veterans are certainly not going to shy down or give an inch where they don’t have to. It’s up to the Raptors to bring an equal measure of fight and show exactly zero deference to the Nets.

I often talk of the noise that can be present in small samples, but the playoffs – especially a series that is now a best-of-three – are nothing but small samples. Predictive is nice in a long regular season, but all that matters now is what has happened and is happening, not what we’d expect to see over the long run. The season is now, for all intents and purposes, three games.

The bad part about that reality is that every mistake or bad bounce is going to be magnified. If you’ve been watching closely, you know what this could mean

In seriousness, a bad call here or there could swing things, as it may have done in Game 3. The answer to that is to not leave the game in the hands of the outcome of a single call or possession.

The good thing about this reality, however, is that the Raptors just have to go out and win two games. In this series so far, they’ve won a pair without playing their best ball. They’ve shown they can do that. Yes, there are troubling signs and things that drove me mad, but they got wins when maybe they shouldn’t have. Ideally, we’d hope they play their best basketball on Wednesday night and lay the smack right down. Maybe they will – it’s unlikely they go seven games without playing one bell-to-bell good one – but even if they don’t, they’ve shown they can grind out victories nonetheless. Wednesday doesn’t have to be pretty.

The Line
Vegas says: Raptors -3, with 52 percent of action going on Brooklyn. The 191 over/under is a dead 50-50 call, as I think it should be.
Vegas says of the series: Raptors -120 to win the series, Nets even (basically, it’s insanely close and the Raptors have the narrowest of edges).
ESPN says: Raptors -3.5 but with a 56 percent chance Brooklyn covers; 78 percent chance the Raptors win the game outright.
B-Ref says: 74 percent chance the Raptors win the series, 71 percent chance they win Game 5.

Blake says: I mean…there’s no way they lose this game, right? This is the most confident I’ve been about a single game yet (for the record, I originally predicted they’d split two in Toronto, split two in Brooklyn, and then the home team would win from there). They played just 18 excellent minutes in Game 4 and still won, and there are some pretty evident ways to improve on that performance. Brooklyn is going to start hitting shots but, as I’ve repeated, the Raptors haven’t been at their best yet, either. I’m going with the good guys.

Note: With Game 5 being declared a Street Fight, my sources indicate that Sunday’s Game 7, should it be necessary, will be bumped onto WWE’s Extreme Rules pay per view, contested under Extreme Rules, and any overtime periods will become a Money in the Bank Ladder Match. Tyler Hansbrough for MVP, naturally.