The Nets sat all five starters in their final game of the regular season, content to drop to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs to rest their aging roster. They will need all the energy they can muster against the young, feisty Toronto Raptors.
The third-seeded Raptors have quietly enjoyed an impressive season. After opening 7-13, they finished as the only team in the East with a top-10 offense and defense. Coach Dwane Casey, the architect of the Dallas Mavericks’ defense during their 2011 title run, when Nets Coach Jason Kidd was a Dallas player, has assembled a sturdy defensive philosophy. The Raptors make good use of their size and athleticism.
Casey’s playoff experience will be a vital resource for the Raptors. They are the second-youngest team in the postseason. The Nets’ starters have 381 playoff starts, while no Raptors starter has one.
The Raptors’ best player, Kyle Lowry, may be the most underrated player in the N.B.A. A backup for Memphis, he did not become a regular starter until his fifth season. Among Eastern Conference guards this season, his player efficiency rating was second only to Dwyane Wade’s.
Barely 6 feet and built like a strong safety, Lowry is a menacing defender. Still smarting from years spent in the shadows, he relishes opportunities to prove himself against big-name point guards. He savaged the Nets this season off the dribble, easily blowing past Shaun Livingston when the teams met in March.
Lowry operates primarily out of the pick-and-roll and focuses on generating high-value shots with drives to the rim or 3-pointers. The Nets failed to force him into tough 2-point jump shots. They will need a committed defensive performance from Deron Williams to push him from his favorite spots.
Defending the pick-and-roll is something the Nets do well because they can switch at so many positions. Paul Pierce, who plays power forward, is the same height as Livingston, who plays shooting guard. This flexibility means the Nets can use a number of coverages to try to keep the Raptors’ offense off balance.
It is especially welcome news for the Nets that Kevin Garnett seems ready to play extensively. Few players understand how to execute complex defensive schemes like Garnett, and his communication and leadership from the back line will be vital. In addition to a variety of pick-and-roll looks, the Raptors like to run their big guards off curl screens and use plenty of misdirection to get them free.
The main beneficiary of those plays in the regular season was the Raptor’s leading scorer and lone All-Star, DeMar DeRozan. The structure of the Raptors’ offense emphasizes his strengths without requiring him to do too much. A highflier who is not much of a playmaker, DeRozan uses screens to gain an advantage; attacks the paint with long, fast strides; or pulls up and easily elevates over most defenders.
Joe Johnson, who will draw the assignment on DeRozan, will need to use his considerable strength to offset a deficit in speed. This matchup is interesting because DeRozan and Johnson are the teams’ go-to players in close games. Johnson has a history of clutch play for the Nets; DeRozan struggles to create for himself at the end of games and will be facing playoff pressure for the first time.
The dynamic between Johnson and DeRozan is emblematic of the greater matchup between these two teams. DeRozan had the superior season, but Johnson is more seasoned. The Nets are hoping that their advantage in experience will carry the day.
To puncture the Raptors’ defensive shell, the Nets will need to keep the ball moving. Pierce’s and Garnett’s shooting will pull the Raptors’ front line from the paint, opening driving lanes for the Nets’ guards if they pass the ball quickly enough around the perimeter to attack before the defense can recover.
As is the case in every seven-game series, each team will try to force the other to do something that does not come naturally. For the Nets, that means packing the paint on defense and forcing the Raptors to beat them with shooting. The Raptors will use their size on the wings to mitigate the Nets’ post game and short-circuit their ball movement.
The Nets acquired Pierce and Garnett, and their expensive contracts, for just this moment. As Celtics, they played on teams that regularly turned up the defense in the playoffs and punched above their weight. The Nets will be counting on that against the Raptors, hoping those 381 playoff starts will fuel one more postseason run.
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