Throughout the past month in watching the Toronto Raptors and analyzing numbers and trends, it was difficult to not get excited about their prospects for the playoffs. Regardless of anything I could say about the Eastern Conference, it was still the playoffs and the Raptors still had the potential to make a little noise if they could overcome some of their youth and inexperience.
There was one caveat for me, though. The Raptors needed to avoid the Brooklyn Nets at all costs. All that veteran leadership and experience I could make fun of as merely a word salad shield for an old group of guys wasn’t going to apply in these playoffs. These Nets were going to scrape and claw and rely on that experience to pull out tough games. And after some careful maneuvering by just about everyone in the East, the Raptors, of course, drew that savvy veteran group, hungry to prove that they weren’t quite done yet.
And Saturday’s Game 1, you ask? It played out as expected. While the game was pretty close throughout, and the Raptors did a good job of closing a number of five or so point gaps, I never got the impression that they would pull the game out. When the Raptors made their runs, the Nets answered. At 35-35, the Nets went on an 8-0 run in three possessions. Early in the second half the Raptors took a 51-50 lead, followed immediately by a 5-0 Nets run, and the same thing happened when the game was tied at 67. Finally, after a Greivis Vasquez 3 gave the Raptors a 76-75 lead, the Nets promptly went on a 7-0 run to take command again. And when they needed it, Paul Pierce came alive, scoring nine points in two minutes.
While the Raptors got solid performances from Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, it was clear, at least on this day, that they didn’t have the options that the Nets did. DeMar DeRozan has been great all year for the Raptors but had the look of someone overwhelmed by the moment in Game 1. DeRozan shot 3-of-13 and didn’t show the all-around game that has separated him this year from years past. Stretches of the game reminded me of the Rudy Gay days of isolation basketball and chucking up shots with minimal ball movement.
It was expected that the Raptors would have a significant rebounding advantage, especially when Kevin Garnett is playing center. They did have a plus-eight rebounding advantage, but they only grabbed one more offensive board. That number has to improve, especially if they are going to turn the ball over more than the Nets, which I also expect. Turning it over nine more times than the Nets, though, will be an almost impossible stat to overcome, especially considering that it is unlikely that the Nets are going to shoot 4-24 from three again.
With painfully little from DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Terrence Ross, the Raptors should have seemingly been out of it from early on. But they weren’t. Valanciunas was incredibly aggressive early, grabbing rebounds with the type of fervor I’ve been asking for all season long. But after a line of eight points and eight rebounds through about six minutes, things slowed considerably. Some of this can be attributed to moving Mason Plumlee on Valanciunas, but they stopped feeding him. There were too many contested outside shots and forcing the ball to Valanciunas each possession would have opened things up a bit for DeRozan and Ross. His final line of 17 points and 18 rebounds has to be encouraging, though.
What does all this tell me? It says that these crafty Nets, the same that received a level of scorn from me that may not have been fair during the regular season, are going to do just enough every game, probably on the back of Deron Williams, to make this a competitive yet clear series for the old guard. I don’t want to make rash generalizations based on one game, but it was clear to me before and is even more so after watching Game 1. If DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross can shake off some tough starts to their postseason careers, perhaps the Raptors can right this ship. But nerves certainly aren’t going to be an issue on the other side.