NBA playoffs preview: Can experienced Nets upset Raptors?
If the regular season was any indication, this should be one of the most evenly matched first-round series. The Raptors and Nets met four times during the season, and while each team took two games, three of the four matchups were decided by four points or less. The last game of the series in particular had a postseason vibe, with Paul Pierce calling it "one of our biggest games of the year."
Storylines abound in this matchup, including the Nets seemingly tanking their way into a matchup with the Raptors as opposed to the Bulls and Raptors coach Dwane Casey squaring off with a player he coached in Jason Kidd, the most interesting angle might be the age discrepancy. From Paul Pierce to Joe Johnson, the veteran-laden Nets boast plenty of postseason experience, while the Raptors' starting five features three playoff rookies. Can Toronto's youth and enthusiasm overcome Brooklyn's experience and wisdom?
The Case For The Raptors
Since shipping Rudy Gay to the Kings in a December trade, the Raptors are an impressive 41-22 -- the best record in the Eastern Conference over that span. Expect that success to continue in the postseason. The breakout backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan poses all sorts of problems for opposing teams, and Casey's squad takes care of the ball, ranking top 10 in the NBA in turnovers per game. Up front, big man Jonas Valanciunas can control the boards, and his late-season surge (18 points and 11.7 rebounds per game in April) suggests he could be a scoring factor down low, too. Overall, balance is the strength of Toronto's game: the Raptors were the only team in the East to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Case For The Nets
It's been a tale of two seasons for the Nets. Entering January, the Nets were 10-21 and one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA after their offseason acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But the new year brought new life to Brooklyn. The Nets have posted the second-best winning percentage since Jan. 1 (.680, 34-16) largely on the strength of a new small-ball style, an approach which gave the Raptors fits in March. "Their lineup is funky, man," Lowry said of the Nets. "When you have Paul Pierce at the 4, it is tough to guard." Brooklyn ranks second-to-last in rebounding rate, so its ability to pull Toronto's big men away from the hoop could prove crucial.
Brooklyn's experience can't be underrated. The Nets players have started a combined 417 postseason games, compiling over 17,000 career playoff minutes. Pierce and Garnett each boast NBA titles, and Deron Williams and Joe Johnson understand the pressure of the NBA's largest stage as well. In a close game, Kidd knows he has players who can hit big shots. Can Casey say the same?
Shaun Livingston. As SI's Ben Golliver recently pointed out, Livingston has been an essential part of the Nets' renaissance. Playing on a minimum contract, the nine-year veteran has been a mainstay of Brooklyn's small-ball lineups, and his length (he stands 6-foot-7) allows him to guard multiple positions on the perimeter. That'll be key against the Raptors' explosive backcourt. The on-court, off-court splits clearly show the Nets are a better defense with Livingston on the court (holding teams to a 106.2 offensive rating with him vs. 108.5 without). If he can help slow Lowry and DeRozan down, the Nets will have a good chance of pulling off an upset.
Nets in seven. The Nets stumbled upon a winning formula in 2014, and their experience will ultimately prove decisive against the upstart Raptors. This won't be a cakewalk for Brooklyn -- Toronto is a deeper squad and is playing just as well as Brooklyn -- but you can bet it won't be fazed by the stage.