It may be prudent to take a look back at some of my vacillating opinions on the Toronto Raptors from the beginning of the season until now. That exercise really does give some perspective—and I need it in abundance through the first four games of this series against the Brooklyn Nets. I had reserved optimism, then a guilty reservation, followed by a reverting back to the kind of pessimism that I felt I should have had in the first place. Then, naturally, it was back to a conditional enthusiasm. Simply put, I was all over the place in my hopes and expectations for the Toronto Raptors.
The fact that this series has mirrored that evolution should not be a surprise. And I, for one, need to take that into account after a Game 4 that defied many of the “veteran certainties” that I figured would catapult the Nets to a contested but clear series win. I boasted that the Nets veterans would kick it into gear down the stretch of every game and find a way to pull out each game with an age-induced grit and determination. I didn’t like how typical or blah that sounded, but I couldn’t have been more certain.
Game 4 could not have set up better for the Nets to not only take control of the series, but also validate my contention that the Nets were going to pull out all the close games against these green Raptors. After blowing an early lead, the Raptors found themselves in a tie with less than five minutes to play. After Game 1, I remarked that after the Raptors rallied to get close, the Nets would always go on a mini-run, often from an aggressive Paul Pierce or Deron Williams, and closed out the game. It gave the impression that they were not only the better team but also the more equipped team to handle the moment and the pressure.
In Game 4, though, the Nets wilted and didn’t score in the final 4:58. The turned it over four times in that span and the Raptors cruised to an 87-79 win. That was a huge surprise, given the turnover differential in the first two games (37-18, Raptors) which, in my mind, was really a snapshot of the entire series regarding inexperience and nerves. The Nets did the opposite of everything that I expected in that final five minutes. That’s a shock, and it once again rocks all of the pre-conceived notions that I had about the series.
Before Game 4, I said that Joe Johnson had become the Raptors’ principal problem; his size and strength were a match up nightmare for any of Toronto’s defensive options. His scoring in the paint was making things easier for the Nets than the Raptors, who had to rely on contested jumpers. The Raptors obviously knew that they had a problem on their hands with Johnson and came at him with double teams early and often in Game 4. Their plan was a success and Johnson was a virtual non-factor, scoring seven points on 2-for-7 shooting. Of course, I figured that one of the other options would step up and take advantage. But that didn’t happen.
There is no doubt that the Nets are going to make adjustment to try and free up Johnson for the pivotal Game 5. Deron Williams also said that he wasn’t aggressive enough in Game 4, either, and I expect him to return to his Game 1 form. With Kyle Lowry hobbling, the Raptors may have to make a Johnson-like adjustment for Williams in Game 5.
So here I am, going into a crucial Game 5 with my mind doing the same kinds of gymnastics that I did trying to figure out this Raptor team in the regular season. I could assume that they have turned the corner with Game 4, or I could say that there is no way that the Nets collapse again. I could think that Jonas Valanciunas is the Raptors best mismatch in this series and he is 7-for-7 combined in the last two games. I could easily make the assumption that if they finally, and I mean finally, decide to feature him the entire game that should be enough to push the Raptors over the top.
But that’s the problem. I’ve succumbed to being a bit of a prisoner of the moment in watching this series. The Raptors won Game 4, but anyone who watched could see that they were given that game. So instead of letting my mind run with scenarios about Toronto, I will stick with the other permeating feeling about Game 5: Deron Williams goes nuts and the Nets win. And I may be over-thinking every scenario in this series, but the one that hasn’t crossed my mind … Terrence Ross doing anything. Hello?