Be careful what you wish for.
The Brooklyn Nets won’t admit to it, but in the final week of the regular season, they played themselves into the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed, avoiding a matchup with the experienced and resilient Chicago Bulls. Their reward is a series with the inexperienced, also resilient, and more talented Toronto Raptors.
It’s been six years since the Raptors were last in the playoffs and they have three starters who have never played in a postseason game. The Nets’ rotation has played more than 10 times as many playoff minutes (about 17,000) as the Raptors’ rotation has (about 1,600).
Toronto has won just one playoff series in its history. The only other time it won its division, it was the No. 3 seed and lost to the sixth-seeded Nets in the first round, with Jason Kidd averaging a triple-double.
Kidd is the Nets’ coach this time, and he seemingly wanted this matchup. But while the prospect of playing the Bulls for six or seven games isn’t all that appealing, neither should be two weeks against the only East team that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. After trading Rudy Gay in early December, the Raptors had the conference’s best record (42-22).
The Nets had their own turnaround. After starting the season 10-21, they went 34-17 after Jan. 1, improving on both ends of the floor. But they’ve had an on-off switch. They’ve had some big wins (including four over the Miami Heat), but also some ugly losses. It’s time now to find out who the real Nets are.
These two teams split their regular season meetings, with three of the four games going down to the wire. The first round series promises to be a tight one as well.
Five quick questions (and answers)
1. How did the Raptors change after the Gay trade? Most of their improvement was on offense, where they shared the ball much more. In their 18 games before the trade, they assisted on just 49 percent of their field goals. After the trade, they assisted on over 60 percent of their buckets. Greivis Vasquez brought a willingness to share the ball from Sacramento, and it was contagious.
2. How did the Nets change after Jan. 1? By playing small with Paul Pierce at the four, the Nets became more skilled offensively and quicker defensively. They took more 3s and forced more turnovers. Pierce and Kevin Garnett — the two guys that changed positions — showed the most improvement individually.
3. Does the schedule benefit the veteran team? Yes. Brooklyn was 6-14 (1-2 vs. Toronto) on the second night of back-to-backs, but had a better record (38-24) than the Raptors (39-25) when playing with at least one day of rest. And they’ll have two days of rest before Games 1, 2, 3 and 5. That should allow Kidd to push Garnett’s minutes toward 25 per game and Pierce’s beyond 30.
4. Is Kyle Lowry the better point guard in the series? Yes. But the drop in Deron Williams’ individual numbers should be taken with some context. Though Brooklyn’s offense has been at its best with Williams on the floor, it doesn’t call for the point guard to do any heavy lifting (see below). Williams’ usage rate was the lowest since his rookie season and ranked 92nd in the league. Still, Lowry has been the Raptors’ driving force on the floor and has seemingly willed them to several wins.
5. Are we seeing the last of Garnett? We won’t know the answer to that until the Nets’ season is over. KG still has one more year left on his contract, but missed all of March with back spasms. He hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in a game since the All-Star break. Knowing that he himself ran out of gas in last year’s playoffs, Kidd has done his best to keep Garnett as fresh as possible for this time of year.
When the Raptors have the ball…
The Raptors’ offense is guard-heavy. Since the Gay trade, their four highest usage rates belong to DeMar DeRozan, Lowry, Vasquez and Terrence Ross. They will run post-ups for Jonas Valanciunas, but more early in the game than late. They’re a heavy pick-and-roll team, often running a pick-and-roll on one side of the floor only to set up another one on the other side. Lowry is more likely to put his head down and attack, while Vasquez is always looking to see who the defense has left open. DeRozan will get his share of isolations and isn’t afraid to take contested jumpers.
The Nets’ bigs will come out high on those pick-and-rolls, leaving one man to defend two on the weak side. If the Raptors can avoid turning the ball over, DeRozan will have opportunities to go one-on-one against a close-out, and Patrick Patterson will get good looks on the perimeter. The Nets ranked second only to Miami in forcing miscues, but among playoff teams, they ranked last in defensive rebounding percentage and last in fast-break points. So the Raptors’ bigs should attack the glass aggressively.
When the Nets have the ball…
The Nets are not a heavy pick-and-roll team. They mostly run their offense through the high post and look to take advantage of their backcourt size. We will see a lot of Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston in the low post against Ross and DeRozan. From there, they will look to move the ball and find the open shooter, often behind the arc. Since the All-Star break, almost 34 percent of the Nets’ shots have come from 3-point range, the second highest mark in the league.
If the Raptors double those post-ups, their defense could be scrambling. In general, they defend both the paint and the 3-point line well, but Pierce will take their best rim protector (Amir Johnson) away from the basket. Their biggest weakness defensively is that they foul often. They had the highest opponent free throw rate among playoff teams, and Brooklyn got to the line 31 times in their March 10 win in Toronto.
In the clutch
No team had more games within five points in the last five minutes than the Raptors (54). And the Toronto offense got more DeRozan-heavy down the stretch. But of the 19 players in the league who attempted at least 75 clutch-time shots, DeRozan had the third lowest effective field goal percentage, shooting just 34 percent from the field and 1-for-11 from 3-point range.
Johnson is the Nets’ go-to guy on big possessions. In his two seasons in Brooklyn, he’s shot 13-for-18 in the final 30 seconds with the score tied or with the Nets down 1-3 points. He’s known as Iso Joe, but the Nets will often give him a screen to try to get a step on his defender or a switch against a big man. Pierce has been clutch (16-for-29) from 3-point range this season.
If a guy has scored 51 points in a game, but has scored half that only one other time in his career, you can consider him a wild card. Ross can be that third guy in the Raptors’ offense when Lowry and DeRozan are drawing the Nets’ attention. Toronto was 20-5 in games that Ross scored at least 14 points (though it lost the one in which he scored 51).
The 3-point-happy Nets have two reserves that will let it fly at every opportunity. About 2/3 of Mirza Teletovic’s shots come from 3-point range. And since arriving in a deadline deal, Marcus Thornton has taken about half his shots from beyond the arc. These guys could shoot the Nets in or out of games when starters are sitting.
It will be an upset if every game isn’t close. The Raptors had a terrific regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal. Toronto won’t necessarily wilt in the spotlight, but Brooklyn should be more focused than we’ve seen them on a lot of regular-season nights. And they’ve proven to be tough when they’re focused.