The Toronto Raptors' first playoff adventure in six seasons begins with a slap across the face.
“I like right where we are,” Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd said after sliding his team backwards into the postseason. “A good place.”
This isn’t how the sixth seed is supposed to talk about the team that finished third.
The Nets lost four of their last five. On the season’s final day, the starters were all benched. Even the best subs saw no action. This was the mini-tank in action.
You don’t have to try hard to feel a rather large insult being conveyed here. Brooklyn didn’t hit the brakes in order to avoid anyone in particular. They did it entirely so that they could play Toronto in the first round.
Even a month ago, Raptors-killer Paul Pierce was musing about the possibility after a game played in Brooklyn at playoff-level intensity.
“This could be the team we play in the first round,” Pierce said. Figuratively, this was the Future-Hall-of-Fame cat eyeing up the canary.
In that contest, won by the Nets, the Raptors were out-thought and out-muscled. And that was without a force of nature like Kevin Garnett on the court.
Overall, the Raptors and Nets split their season series (2-2). Both teams won one at home and on the road.
Since Jan. 1st (and until they began their purposeful swoon), the Nets were 21-2 at home. By contrast, the Raptors were the best road team in the East (22-19).
That’s one of a great many sub-plots at work here.
The last time the Raptors looked like a real force (2006-07), they were taken out in the first round by the then New Jersey Nets.
This series pits student against teacher – Toronto’s Dwane Casey was the defensive field marshal who helped guide Kidd’s Dallas Mavericks team to the 2011 championship.
It’s also a battle of rationality versus hubris. The Raptors are a salary-cap cleaving club. The Nets, a plaything for Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, have the highest real payroll in league history – $180-million (U.S.) after luxury taxes.
Most importantly, it’s Jay-Z versus Drake. By the time this is over, you have my personal permission to punch anyone who begins a sentence with, “Started from the bottom …”
Tactically, we are now in an entirely different dimension. Playoff basketball is physically permissive basketball. Elbows-flying basketball. It’s also the time when elite players get elite calls.
That odd marriage heavily favours the veteran Nets. Cumulatively, the Raptors 15-man roster has 152 games of playoff experience. Pierce has 136.
The match-ups look promising: Jonas Valanciunas vs. Kevin Garnett (a slight and diminishing advantage to the Nets); Kyle Lowry vs. Deron Williams (advantage: Raptors); DeMar DeRozan vs. Pierce (call this pie-bald optimism, but that’s a wash).
The key confrontation may be cerebral – Casey vs. Kidd.
Increasingly through the season, the Toronto coach has shown the ability to think his way through opponents, especially when given time. That shocking improvement in the last five minutes of games? Part of it is execution; part of it is Lowry taking the reins; and a big part of it is Casey’s tactics.
The post-season favours Casey over a coaching rookie in Kidd. He’ll have two or three days between games to adjust and add wrinkles.
If he’s working at his highest level, Toronto has a real shot at giving the Nets reason to regret their cockiness.