The Toronto Raptors are one of the most surprising stories of the season – a team made for tanking suddenly becoming one of the best in the East. The Brooklyn Nets? It’s hard to decide if this season is a success or not, but eventually they achieved their goal of making the playoffs, not to mention being one of those teams without home court advantage that no one actually wants to play.
The teams split their regular season series, but Toronto, at least by numbers, are the better team. They’re younger, haven’t been prone to ups and downs in the span of two days like the Nets have and are above the Nets both in offensive efficiency (104.8 points per 100 possessions compared to 103.2 points for the Nets) and in defensive efficiency. The Raptors allow 101.5 points per 100 possessions, the Nets 104.2.
Another issue is going to be rebounding. Brooklyn are the second worst team in the NBA when it comes to boards, grabbing only 47.5% of total rebounds. Not having a starting center (Brook Lopez is gone) means more on Kevin Garnett to and guys from the bench to try and make up for that. The Nets can box out and defend well, but when it comes to battling for boards, they’re in a huge disadvantage, especially if Jonas Valanciunas comes to play.
The Lithuanian center is averaging 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds this season. Against the Nets? His numbers don’t really change, but if he can grab more than 3-4 offensive rebounds per game and make it about converting second-chance points, the Nets are going to have a big problem fighting a battle they’re not really equipped to win.
The key players in terms of scoring for both teams are the guards. Kyle Lowry is Toronto’s best player, averaging 17.9 points and 7.4 assists per game. There’s a huge difference between the minutes when he’s on the court to when he’s off of it, slightly better than what we see for Amir Johnson, who is basically Toronto’s “glue guy.” DeMar DeRozan is the team’s top scorer with 22.7 points per game, but the Raptors will need him to shoot better than 42.9% from the field.
For the Nets, it’s about Deron Williams. Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson might be a likelier bet for more points, but Williams is a guy the Nets don’t have a replacement for, especially with Shaun Livingston playing in the starting lineup. Their bench might be deep, but their second unit looks very bad when Livingston and Williams aren’t involved in the on-court unit in some way, at least most of the time.
Prediction – The Raptors aren’t just a fluke team that got hot in a weak conference. They’ve got wing scorers, a very good point guard and inside presence, although not the most dependable. The Nets are more experienced and don’t mind playing on the road too much, but a playoff series might expose their fatigue issues more than they’d like to show, costing them the series in six or seven games.