While a good portion of NBA fans outside of Canada are already salivating over a potential Nets/Heat match-up in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Brooklyn must first get past an upstart Toronto squad.
The Raptors were one of the surprises of the league this season, winning 48 games and capturing the Atlantic Division crown over of the more ballyhooed and expensive rosters put together by the men running the Knicks and Nets. Toronto has the home court advantage in this series, and with a surprising collection of young and hungry players itching to get their first taste of the playoffs, this will be no cakewalk for the Nets.
For those of us who enjoyed the seemingly annual playoff wars between LeBron and the Heat versus the Paul Pierce/KG led Celtics, I would love to see those two veterans get one more crack at Miami. For that to happen, the Nets will need the following to occur:
Win the point guard battle: I’ve said it for awhile now, but if the Nets are going to be true championship contenders they need their $98 million man to be one of the best (if not the best) players on the floor for the duration of the playoffs. Deron Williams has battled a slew of ankle injuries throughout his time in Brooklyn, but at the moment he seems to be relatively healthy. He will face a stiff test against Kyle Lowery, a player who has quietly put together a stellar season. Toronto’s point guard averaged 18 points and 7 assists per game this year, serving as the Raptors designated “closer” in the fourth quarter and in tight games. At one point before the trade deadline both the Knicks and Nets were pining for his services, and watching him compete you see why. D-Will has historically increased his output in the playoffs (career playoff averages of 21.1 PPG and 9.4 APG, up from 17.4 and 8.7 in the regular season), and with a veteran laden squad that might only get one or two cracks at this, he needs to bring his A-game to the party now.
KG needs to be KG: Though Kevin Garnett missed 19 games recently because of back spasms, he has returned just in time for the NBA’s second season to begin. The 37-year-old might not be the beast he used to be on either end of the floor anymore, but Brooklyn’s defense is still markedly better when he is out there in the quarterback role. I vividly remember KG looking like he was on fumes entering last year’s playoffs versus the Knicks, only to see him turn it on and once again be the best “big” on the floor when it counted. Jonas Valanciunas is a load inside for the Raptors and might present some challenges on the offensive glass for a Nets squad that is one of the worst rebounding teams in the entire NBA. The old man will certainly need some help in that department from the likes of Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche. Given the styles of play, I assume it will get chippy between KG and Valanciunas at some point. He wouldn’t be KG if it didn’t, and I am looking forward to the physical play and some par for the course trash talking.
Have the dominant bench: Brooklyn’s bench is one of its biggest strengths, contributing 38.5 PPG to lead the Eastern Conference in bench scoring for the season. With the starters in this series looking to be fairly even, Jason Kidd’s team will need to differentiate itself via their highly skilled reserves. Blatche and Marcus Thornton both averaged double figures in scoring, Plumlee provides them with a much needed dose of youth, athleticism, and rim protection, and Mirza Tetetovic can space the floor and play physical against opposing wings. Then their is Andrei Kirilenko. In my mind, Brooklyn’s most important reserve this postseason will be AK-47 due to his ability to guard multiple positions and create scoring opportunities by being around the basket or out on the break. He is a pesky player who will get plenty of opportunities to get up in the space of DeMar DeRozan. Greivis Vasquez was a solid pickup by the Raptors, but overall the Nets have a decided advantage in talent off of the bench and should be able to create some separation when they are on the floor.
The failure of the Nets against the Bulls in the first round a year ago helped set in motion a flurry of off-season moves by Billy King. He hoped to transform Brooklyn into a tougher squad that could be taken seriously as a contender, and given the collective age of this unit and the outrageous cash outlay that followed, we are approaching the time for these moves to pay their dividends. The Raptors will present a number of challenges, but at the moment I just can’t see them getting past a desperate Nets team that needs to win now.