I'm not gonna be a 100% homer in this, I'm going to give a fair, reasonably unbiased analysis of the most intriguing matchup in the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
This is almost a carbon copy of how things played out in 2007. Let me explain:
Around December/January, the Toronto Raptors enjoyed a remarkable turnaround after a slow start to the season. That team finished 47-35, Atlantic Division Champs and claimed the 3rd seed on the second to last day of the season.
Meanwhile, the then-New Jersey Nets struggled to stay in playoff contention, then upon realizing that the Raptors would most likely finish 3rd, lost the last 2 or 3 of the their games to ensure the 6th seed.
The Raptors, led by Chris Bosh, took on the former Raptors star, Vince Carter. The story practically writes itself at this point. Overwhelmed by inexperience and aggressive defense, Chris Bosh wilted and the Raptors lost to Nets in 6 games.
In the next round, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavs were lying in wait, ready to make quick work of the Nets.
That was 2007... This is 2014. 7 years later, history is set to repeat itself... Or is it?
So far, the Raptors locked up the Atlantic title, 3rd seed and a franchise best 48 wins. The now, Brooklyn Nets claimed the 6th seed by (surprise surprise) losing 4 of its last 5 games to "rest their players" (and by rest, I mean tanking to avoid playing the Bulls), thus ensuring that they would meet an inexperienced Raptors squad that has more than overachieved this season.
Many are causing a brouhaha (and rightfully so) that Brooklyn exudes playoff experience while the Raptors for the most part haven't played any meaningful basketball in late April/early May since really Vince wore White, Purple and Black. However, the last 2 times the Raptors were in the playoffs (both under Bosh's leadership), the Raptors had been coined as soft, and rightfully so. They couldn't catch a cold with the defense they were playing.
But again, this is 2014, not 2007. This isn't the same Raptors or Nets by any stretch. Here is the breakdown:
Nets have playoff experience and veteran age, but that's as far as their advantage goes. Experience goes a long way, yes, but it sure as heck doesn't make you immune to losing... Or underestimating your opponent. It's not some magic potion that automatically makes you play with zero flaws. Experience is just that... Experience.
Now before I make my next point, I want to be clear on something: from New York down to Milwaukee, the East sucks! Period! That said, from Minnesota to the Lakers, the West SUCKS! PERIOD! So excluding those teams from the equation, the Toronto Raptors are 48 and 34... They are a GOOD team... Not a great team, but a GOOD team. They have hanged with the likes of Miami, San Antonio, Clippers and haven't given an inch. They've beaten teams like OKC (expected to win it all), Indiana (expected to overthrow Miami this year), Dallas, Memphis, Washington, Chicago, Golden State, Houston, Atlanta... And not to mention Brooklyn as well. This team, since trading Rudy Gay on December 8th, has been the 4th best defensive team (late season injuries notwithstanding) and the 9th best offensive team in the league. No other team in the East playoff mix can claim top 10 honours in both. And on top of that, Toronto is the #1 team in the league in the 4th quarter, the two teams behind them: Miami and San Antonio.
The match up:
Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Johnson, JV vs Williams, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce and KG.
On paper, the Raptors have little chance. But games are never won on paper, and with a good portion of the Nets lineup licking their wounds, a fresher, more focused Raptors squad may use that to their advantage.
1. For both teams, it's gonna come down to bench play. Vasquez has come alive and is feeling hot from downtown. Plus it's only a matter of time until Patterson finds his scoring touch since coming off of injury. On the flip side, Thornton, Blatche, Plumlee and Teletovic are NOT to be taken lightly. Letting anyone of these guys go off will prove to be costly.
2. Ross the Boss? Depending on the health of Anderson, who will be tasked to shut down DeRozan, Ross must be effective for the Raptors to be successful.
3. D. Will. Once upon a time ago, Williams was considered a top PG... Now, he's lucky if makes the top 10 list. And in 4 games, Lowry has owned Williams. For the Nets to have a be successful, Williams has to do something he hasn't done all season: outplay Kyle Lowry.
This is gonna come down to who wants it more. For the Nets, it's all on them: $100 million payroll, championship or bust mindset, actually wanting the Raptors thinking that they'd be an easy out. For the Raptors, absolutely 0 pressure: they weren't suppose to be here anyways, no one truly expects them to win, and Brooklyn "has more experience". That said, the Raptors have a huge chip on their shoulder for the following: zero respect from refs, zero respect from analysts, zero respect from US Sports TV, zero respect from CANADIAN Sports TV (and they own the team), and zero respect from the Nets. As if DeRozan and Lowry needed anymore motivation.
I say Raptors in 6. All the experience in the world won't save Brooklyn from Father Time. KG won't be a factor early on, and by the time he does get into some sort of rhythm, it'll be too late. Plus, the Raptors, who are on a quest to earn respect, will beat it out of the Nets and earn it from the rest of the league.
Be careful what you wish for Brooklyn... You wanted us, you got us
Oh, just so it didn't seem out of place earlier, just like in 2007, the winner of this round has the privilege of facing LeBron James in the 2nd round. Have fun with that one.