Now that the dust has finally settled in the 2013-2014 regular season and the playoff matchups are set, let’s dive into the only playoff series that will be taking place in New York, the sixth seeded Brooklyn Nets against the third seeded Toronto Raptors.
The Nets might have stumbled into the playoffs, losing four of their last five games all against sub-.500 teams, but there is no doubt that falling into a series against fellow Atlantic division member Toronto is more beneficial for the Nets than a series against the Chicago Bulls would have been.
These two teams met four times during the regular season, splitting the series 2-2. That being said, it’s important to remember that the Nets’ two losses to Toronto were on the second night of back to back games. Brooklyn finished the year 6-14 in those games. There are no back to backs in the playoffs.
Even further, one of those losses should most certainly have been a win for Brooklyn. I’m sure Nets fans remember Brooklyn’s tragic 104-103 loss at home on January 27th.
To recap, the Nets were ahead 103-102 with 12 seconds left in the game. Brooklyn was inbounding the ball in the frontcourt. They try to run a play to get Joe Johnson open, so as to get him to the line. But, when it doesn’t work, Johnson breaks into the backcourt draped by Patrick Patterson, and yet Deron Williams tries to force the pass to him away from the Nets basket and towards Toronto’s. Patterson steals the ball, passes to Kyle Lowry, who then gets it back to Patterson for an easy jumper to give Toronto the 104-103 lead that would hold.
It was a disgusting loss from a Brooklyn team that had won 10 of their previous 11. But, if it tells us nothing else, it tells us that this Brooklyn-Toronto series will be close in virtually every game. These two teams are pretty evenly matched, so, if you’re one of those ridiculous Nets fans that are already talking about a second round matchup, you’re in for quite a ride.
So, what is it about Toronto that proves difficult for the Nets? It’s the same thing that makes Toronto a tough matchup for anybody. The Raptors two guards, Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan make up one of the best backcourts in the league. Against the Nets this year, both Lowry and DeRozan are averaging 22 points per game and shooting approximately 50 percent from the field. That is something that cannot continue if the Nets want to win this series. You can’t let both guys go off. That’s a recipe for disaster.
The Raptors are a well balanced team, ranking in the top 10 in both offense and defense in the league. But one thing they don’t have is experience. Per the National Post, the Raptors roster has played a combined 1,639 playoff minutes. That’s the lowest among playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. The Nets on the other hand, have a combined 17,117 playoff minutes on their roster. That’s roughly 10.4 times as many playoff minutes as the Raptors.
Obviously, experience alone does not make a winner. But it does help. Both of these teams got off to poor starts in the regular season, and both stayed the course and find themselves in the postseason. However, if things get hairy, expect the Raptors to flinch before the Nets. Even if the Nets drop the first two games in Toronto, I don’t think a team led by Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will panic. They didn’t when they were 10-21 earlier in the year, they probably won’t now. On the flip side, a young Raptors team trailing 2-1 after three games is a likely candidate to collapse.
Something else the Nets do extremely well, and you can partially tie this to experience, is get to the foul line. Brooklyn is fifth in the NBA in Free Throw Rate, getting to the line on 31 percent of their field goal attempts. This is not good news for Toronto, as on defense, they foul quite about and are in the bottom five in Opponent’s Free Throw Rate. If the Nets can take advantage of this, a couple things can really turn in their favor.
1) The Nets can grab an easy 15-20 points from the line, and really put the pressure on a Toronto team that does not shoot particularly well from the field.
2) The Raptors young bigs (Valanciunas, Patterson, Johnson and Hansborough) might have to be much more cautious if they get into foul trouble, which is a good thing for a Nets team that features only two true bigs in Garnett and Plumlee.
Getting the Raptors big men into foul trouble can also help the Nets on the boards. Brooklyn is second to last in the league in rebound percentage, while Toronto is in the top ten. If Toronto dominates on the boards and thus controls possession, the Nets could be in some trouble. But, despite being such a poor rebounding team, Brooklyn has managed to avoid losing games because of it since they went to a smaller lineup.
The last thing I will say to watch is how Jason Kidd uses his bench. The Nets bench played the second most minutes in the league this year, and for good reason. Brooklyn is deep. They boast two competent players at all five spots on the floor, and that’s without Brook Lopez.
In the postseason, big rotations tend to shrink as coaches want their core group of players out there longer. But if you’re Jason Kidd, depth might carry you to victory. There is something to be said about the incredible variety of lineups the Nets can throw at their opponents. Yes, there is the core that will see a minutes increase, but with Garnett and Pierce being on the older side, and the Nets planning on being in the playoffs for more than two weeks, don’t be surprised if Kidd experiments with some stranger lineups especially when 6’11” Jonas Valanciunas is off the floor for Toronto.
This should be a fun series. Brooklyn has been playing all season like the playoffs are all that matter. It’s time to see if they can back up that attitude. Toronto is one of the best stories in the league, being pegged as a lottery team early on, only to trade Rudy Gay and become a top team in the Eastern Conference.
Anyone that thinks this won’t be a battle is seriously mistaken.
Prediction: Brooklyn in 6