Throw out everything that has happened in April, the Nets saw that they couldn’t catch the Raptors for the Atlantic Division lead and decided to rest their aging injury-susceptible crew for the playoffs. Maybe Toronto was the matchup they wanted, but Brooklyn wasn’t going to beat any playoff team if their veterans were nicked-up or exhausted. On the other hand, the Wizards had every reason to try and avoid the Raptors in the first round and there can be no slight raised about a team trying to move up in the standings, so it Raptors versus Nets starting on Saturday.
No one in the Raptors locker room has shown any signs of concern about facing whomever in the playoffs. This team hasn’t been in the postseason since 2008 and they have a roster full of players hungry to get there against anybody. Besides, the Nets didn’t exactly overwhelm them during the regular season.
The Nets are a very veteran team, a starting lineup that averages way over 30-years-old with hundreds of playoff games between them. There are no mysteries about what the Nets can do. The only mystery is whether the Nets veterans can find enough of the fountain of youth for one more deep playoff run, but with how the season played out, that just doesn’t seem very likely.
The Brooklyn advantage, as Raptors TV color analyst Jack Armstrong has so directly inferred, belongs to the league’s history of highly favorable calls from the referees going to veteran star players on big name teams and the Nets are loaded with veteran star players. However, through the regular season, the Nets had to earn the majority of their calls against Toronto. Most of Brooklyn’s stars are on the wrong side of 30 and haven’t been getting all of the calls they might have received 3, 4, 5 years ago.
The Raptors advantage is youth and their biggest question mark will revolve around their starting sophomores Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors won’t win if Ross and Valanciunas fade under the pressure of the postseason, however, this team has picked up their future stars all year and helped them to get the job done. Toronto has won as a team during the regular season and they will have to win as a team during the playoffs. The Raptors youth tends to get overstated. Most of their rotation players are between 24 and 28-years-old.
Where Paul Pierce only had one big game against the Raptors this year and Joe Johnson hasn’t done much against them since December, all except one of the games between these two teams was decided in the final seconds. The Nets do have other players that can pick up the scoring load. Andray Blatche has scored 20 or more points twice against Toronto, Shaun Livingston had a big game and Alan Anderson can get hot off the bench. Brooklyn is deep.
However, the Nets haven’t been able to stop Toronto from scoring. Brooklyn has no answer to the combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but since the trade, it’s been the Raptors bench that has given them the most problems. The Raptors can make the case they would have won game four in Brooklyn and the season series if Patrick Patterson was available. Plus, Greivis Vasquez gives Toronto a big point guard to play with Lowry and offset the Nets effective pairing of Williams and Livingston.
The Raptors playoff success, just like their regular season, will hinge on the four players they received from Sacramento in December. Look for John Salmons to pick up Ross when he gets in trouble, Vasquez to give Toronto an answer to the Nets two point guard look and more heroics from Patterson against that dangerous Brooklyn small ball lineup.
If the Raptors can hold serve on their home court in the first two games of the playoffs – and they should be favored to do just that – they have shown the ability to steal one from Brooklyn on the road. The Nets aren’t build as a come-from-behind-team, down 3-1, this series will wrap in 5 games at the Air Canada Centre.
The offset is, if the Nets can steal one of the first two games in Toronto, the Raptors lack of postseason experience will likely start to show through and the Nets can take the opening round in 6 or 7 games.
Don’t look for blow outs, all the games should be close.
The Regular Season Series
The Nets took the first game 102-100 in Toronto, but that was before the trade that changed everything for the Raptors. Brooklyn wasn’t exactly playing well at this time either. Aside from the close score and Lowry and DeRozan scoring 51 points between them, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in game one that would shed any light on future contests.
Game two in Toronto came after the Raptors trade and the Nets revival. Brooklyn had won 5-in-a-row in 2014 and was considered the hottest team in the NBA, they had found themselves. However, the Raptors had found themselves in December and when the Nets arrived in Toronto it was to take a 96-80 beat down. Excuses would fly about how the Nets had just come off an emotional win over Miami the night before, but this time Lowry and DeRozan’s 38 points would be supported by new starting line mate Ross’ 14 points and 33 points from the four players Toronto had received from the Sacramento Kings. The real test would come back in Brooklyn two weeks hence.
Pierce averaged 15.3 points in three of the head-to-head games, but in game three, he went off for 33 points at home. It wasn’t enough. Even without DeRozan – sitting with a sore ankle – the Raptors were able to score 104 points on the Nets for the 1 point victory. The Raptors had snapped a second 5-game Brooklyn winning streak in the same month. The Nets looked like they were on their way, but the Raptors looked better. Lowry upped his production to 31 points in DeRozan’s absence. Former Kings forward Patterson came off the bench with 15 points and Valanciunas broke out with a 20 point 13 rebound game to offset 20 points from Blatche.
The Raptors won game three on a steal off a bad inbounds pass from Williams with 12 seconds left that Patterson turned into the game winner. Turnovers were also decisive in game four at the end.
Game four in Brooklyn was another close one, but this time the Nets eked out a 101-97 victory helped by turnovers from Ross and Lowry in the final 25 seconds. With the Nets leading 97-96, the Raptors had their chances to win or tie, but just couldn’t get it done. Lowry and DeRozan scored 35 points between them. Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough scored 16 points each, however, Patterson was obvious by his absence, the Raptors missed his defense against the small ball lineup of the Nets.
Picking a winner in this series is probably a mug’s game. The options are:
- Taking the veteran experience of a Nets team that really did not perform anywhere near expectations during the regular season and when the chips were down couldn’t catch the Raptors for the Atlantic Division lead despite opportunities to do so, or
- Believing in the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference for three-quarters of the season – post Rudy Gay trade – even though they have only a handful of postseason games between them when compared to the Nets.
Toronto will not be intimidated by the Nets playoff experience. They have played them four times this season and didn’t see anything to be afraid of. The Raptors believe they can win because they have won. Not knowing just how tough this is supposed to be is probably enough to get by a team that hasn’t performed up to expectations.
Unless you believe the Nets can turn it on and off like a light switch (and maybe they can?), look for the Raptors to take this in 5.
Amir Johnson: Raptors Are Proud Of This Season
Especially for the guys that play and work all year, we get to sit back and say – okay – we actually did something this season,” Johnson said. “Starting from training camp, to everything happening, to trades, to now this, it is a great honor.”
This Is The Best Raptors Team In Franchise History
With no disrespect to Vince Carter, who is still the best player in franchise history, the 2013-2014 Raptors are the best team Toronto fans have seen since this franchise started playing in 1995.