The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
If you’re just checking in now, you’d be forgiven for wondering just how the Brooklyn Nets made it to the 2014 NBA playoffs. Actually, if you’re just checking in now, you likely missed the early season swoon these Nets cobbled together while you were paying attention to various brands of football. A team featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams would seem to be a postseason lock, as the springtime championship attempt commences.
The Nets had to work through an extremely challenging set of conditions before righting the ship, though. Lead assistant coach Lawrence Frank was booted from rookie head coach Jason Kidd’s staff in the first month for allegedly watering down Kidd’s touch, tone and impact from the bench. Brook Lopez, by far the best player on the team at the time, was lost for the season to a foot injury in the days before Christmas. The team played a hellacious schedule, working up a series of back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-nights runs in anticipation of the team’s midseason “vacation” jaunt to play a contest in London.
Garnett was aging before our eyes, Pierce needed months to top 40 percent from the field, many questioned Kidd’s abilities as a head man, no help via draft picks was forthcoming, and Williams’ once-stellar game was nowhere to be seen.
The team then railed off five wins in six tries in the last days before the London trip. The break surrounding the game in England helped, the schedule de-stiffened, and the wins started piling up. Kidd had his team of oldsters playing small, with Pierce at big forward, and even the loss of Garnett (who played just five contests after February) was offset by the ascension of rookie Mason Plumlee. Suddenly, the Nets are right back to where we’d thought they’d be entering 2013-14 – unpredictable, old as hell, and seemingly one matchup away from doing some real postseason damage.
The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, hadn’t even made the postseason in six years, and they sure as hell weren’t supposed to be in contention heading into this season. After years of dealing for 40-some wins, new general manager Masai Ujiri dealt former stalwart shooters Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for draft picks and cap relief. The team had no idea what it wanted to do with firebrand, free agent to-be point guard Kyle Lowry, and everyone involved in the organization was left awaiting further hammer strokes from the new boss in town.
The team responded by winning. It utilized depth and Lowry’s deft touch, taking in increasingly efficient production from swingmen DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. It forced heaps of turnovers and got to the line a ton, and most importantly it gave beleaguered Raptors fans something to finally cheer for outside of lottery odds.
How long this lasts is left to be determined. The Raptors aren’t exactly shrinking violets, in spite of their relative youth (hell, the Easter Island statues look young compared to the Nets), but the team has provided some fitful play down the stretch of close games this year. Brooklyn has not – swingman Joe Johnson has enjoyed a historically clutch season towards the end of nail-biters, Pierce remains a killer go-to option late in games, and Williams has a history of being able to clear for a good look with the digits winding down.
Lotta history there, but this is what the Nets were created for. If this series goes seven contests, a good possibility for two pretty solid teams, its term could be spread out over 15 days. That’s fantastic news for a Nets team that spends half its year in a bucket filled with ice, and not so great news for a young Raptors team that probably wanted to start this series yesterday.
In all, though, it’s nice to see the Nets turn their season around, and these Toronto Raptors turn their franchise around. How much more “around” both teams will be this year will probably be determined by fourth-quarter play, and if the younger Raps want to earn a semblance of the name recognition that the Nets’ stars have, this is a good time to start creating positive headlines.
Prediction: Nets in six.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Are the Nets too experienced for the Raptors?
The 2013-14 postseason begins with what might be the closest matchup on the board. The Atlantic Division foes split their season series at two wins apiece. Three of the four matchups were decided by four or fewer points, and the lone exception -- a 96-80 Raptors win in Toronto back in January -- came with Brooklyn playing the second game of a road back-to-back after a double-overtime win over the Miami Heat without Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett. Both teams have been lights out since the start of 2014, to boot.
Brooklyn posted the East's second-best post-Jan. 1 record, going 34-17 thanks in large part to Jason Kidd's tactical switch (prompted by losing Brook Lopez for the season) to more opportunistic, long-limbed lineups featuring Garnett at the five spot, Paul Pierce to the four, Joe Johnson at small forward and Shaun Livingston alongside Williams in a two-point-guard backcourt. That five-man unit wrecked the league in limited floor time, holding opponents to a microscopic offensive efficiency (89.9 points per 100 possessions) that would have been far and away the league's stingiest D over the full season, and outscoring opponents by a whopping 17.5 points-per-100 in 129 minutes.
When Garnett couldn't go, Mason Plumlee stepped in, and that unit kept rolling. It was much leakier defensively, as you'd expect when replacing one of the greatest defensive players ever with a freshman, but with the Duke product dunking everything, Williams-Livingston-Johnson-Pierce-Plumlee lit up defenses to the tune of 113.7 points-per-100, far above the Los Angeles Clippers' league-leading mark, in 284 minutes. The Nets finally found the on-court identity that had long eluded them -- play small(ish), play aggressive, force turnovers, take advantage of mismatches in the post and hunt 3-pointers (33 percent of their shots since Jan. 1 have come from beyond the arc, the highest share in the league) -- and it's suited them.
Toronto also experienced a December shake-up after Rudy Gay and reserves Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray were shipped to Sacramento in exchange for swaggering Greivis Vasquez, floor-spacing Patrick Patterson, swingman John Salmons and big man Chuck Hayes. The Raptors went an East-leading 42-22 after that, and ranked as one of four teams -- and the only one from the East -- to finish in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession after Jan. 1. (The three from the West: the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.)
With Gay gone, the Raps leaned into a guard-centric, pick-and-roll-heavy attack. Kyle Lowry proved himself one of the East's best point guards, averaging more than 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game after the All-Star break. Rising star DeMar DeRozan stepped up his season-long assault on the rim, averaging 9.1 free-throw attempts per game after the All-Star break en route to per-game career highs in points, rebounds and assists. Toronto attacks the glass on both ends, relying on Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and famed pest Tyler Hansbrough to set strong screens and do interior dirty work. Sophomore Terrence Ross hectors ball-handlers on the perimeter and soars in transition, Vasquez keeps the offense humming with the second unit, and when his shot's going down, Patterson can be a valuable X-factor -- he averaged 14.5 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting in Toronto's wins over the Nets.
The glaring difference, of course, is experience. The Nets have it and the Raptors don't. As Eric Koreen of the National Post noted, Brooklyn's rotation members have "played approximately 10.4 times the postseason minutes" that the Raptors’ have. The gap's a bit less clear on the sidelines -- while both Kidd and Dwane Casey will be entering their first series as head coaches, Kidd's got more than 6,000 playoff minutes under his belt, while Casey took part in many postseason runs as an assistant in Seattle and Dallas.
Pierce, Garnett, Johnson, Williams and Andrei Kirilenko are all well versed in pressure-cooker scenarios like this one. Toronto's young guns aren't. Will that tilt the series? Maybe this is bright-eyed optimism, but I don't think so.
For one thing, as Alex Raskin of the Wall Street Journal wrote, the Nets' defense hasn't really derailed the Raptors. Brooklyn forced turnovers on the same share of Toronto's possessions (16.7 percent) as it did to the rest of the league this season, and capitalized on them at an even higher clip (19.8 points off turnovers per 48 minutes against the Raps, up from 18.4-per-48 against the league at large). Yet the Raptors still scored at a super-efficient 107 points-per-100 possessions clip against the Nets this season -- significantly higher than the Nets' full-season, post-Jan. 1, and post-All-Star defensive marks -- largely by averaging 24 3-point tries per game and drilling 38.5 percent of them. The Nets should be more focused and disruptive in the playoffs, but I'm not sure they've got the Miami-flip-the-switch-create-chaos gear that suddenly just shuts down the arc.
I'm skeptical we'll see much game-changing play from Garnett, who's got a balky back and whom we've barely seen over the past two months. I think Ross and Johnson can hold their own defensively against Johnson and Pierce, and that Toronto's athleticism will help them avoid major breakdowns on the Nets' ball swings. The Nets have had trouble curbing point-guard production all season, and now they'll get both barrels of Lowry, who averaged 22 points, six assists and 4.8 rebounds per game against them on 50/48.1/88.2 shooting splits this season.
Brooklyn thrives on open 3s, but Toronto has allowed the second-fewest long balls per 48 minutes since Jan. 1, while holding opponents to the league's ninth-lowest 3-point percentage. And I think home-court matters here -- while each team scored a win on its opponent's home floor this season, the Nets were just 16-25 on the road (the second-worst road record of any playoff team, ahead of only the Atlanta Hawks) and the Raptors finished 26-15 at the Air Canada Centre, including a 12-5 mark since the All-Star break.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Nets can move on to an eagerly anticipated second-round matchup with the Heat. But these Raptors are for real, too, and I think a national audience that hasn't seen them much this year is about to learn that.
Prediction: Raptors in 7.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
The vast majority of this year’s 16 playoff participants have been on national television many times this season. The Toronto Raptors, though, enter the postseason in the atypical position of the unknown quality. Apart from League Pass devotees, most fans just haven’t seen the Raptors this season. The casual fan is unfamiliar with the offensive strides taken by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry’s big jump towards stardom, and Amir Johnson’s excellent screens and defense. If only for the curiosity factor, the Raptors stand out as a particularly watchable team.
The Nets might be the exact opposite — a squad with very familiar faces who were probably overexposed early this season. While their improvement since the calendar turned to 2014 and potential quasi-takeover of New York in the Knicks’ absence make the Nets a more compelling team, we all generally know what Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Paul Pierce look like in the playoffs. Unless a critical mass of Duke fans need to catch up with Mason Plumlee, it’s hard to see the Nets serving as a major attraction.
As usual, then, this series will probably come down to the quality of competition. Although the contrast in fame makes these teams interesting foils, their substantive pull will come from the fact that they’re two quality teams, if not quite conference-champion contenders, that have managed to prove themselves as worthy of our time. Among an iffy quartet of first-round series in the East, this one provides the best chance of rewarding those who follow it.
Prediction: Nets in 6.