NBA playoffs preview: Youth vs. experience in Raptors-Nets
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, and while each team took two games, three of the four were decided by four points or fewer. The last meeting, in particular, had a postseason vibe, with Brooklyn forward Paul Pierce calling the Nets' 101-97 victory on March 10 "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, though, might be the age discrepancy. 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 trading Rudy Gay to the Kings in December, the Raptors are 41-22 -- the best record in the Eastern Conference over that span. The breakout backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan poses all sorts of problems for opponents. Casey's team takes care of the ball, ranking 10th in turnover percentage. 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 that 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 Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But the new year brought new life to Brooklyn. The Nets have posted the second-best winning percentage in the East since Jan. 1 (.667, 34-17), largely on the strength of a new small-ball style, an approach that gave the Raptors fits in their most recent game. "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 29th 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. Nets players have started a combined 417 postseason games, compiling more than 17,000 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 Nets allow 103.2 points per 100 possessions with Livingston on the floor compared to 106.6 when he sits, according to NBA.com. If he can help slow Lowry and DeRozan, 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 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.