Series Preview: Raptors (3) vs. Nets (6)

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BACKCOURT

The backcourt combo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry is the single biggest reason why the Raptors are tipping off their postseason at home as a third seed. While DeRozan is the lone All-Star on the roster, both players have had career years. The Brooklyn Nets have a collection of players with All-Star history (including seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, who beat out Lowry for a spot this year), but their franchise player is point guard Deron Williams. Although Williams isn’t the player he was at the height of his career in Utah, he’s still a very solid point guard and often underrated scorer. Toss in the rangy Shaun Livingston as the likely defender on DeRozan and the backcourt matchup will be crucial. Livingston has made life difficult for DeRozan in the past, despite the Raptors swingman brushing off the suggestion that Livingston’s length (at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) bothers him at a recent practice.

If the Nets can limit DeRozan offensively, sophomore Terrence Ross could become a key player for the Raptors. If the Raptors can capitalize on their advantage (Lowry being the best player on the floor for either team), they will make things tough on the Nets. They’ll also remind everyone why Lowry should have been in New Orleans during All-Star Weekend.

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FRONTCOURT

Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett are an intimidating trio of names. Experience, poise, skill, credentials, they’ve seen — and done — it all. When talking about the experience factor, never is it more evident than in the frontcourt where Pierce, Garnett and Johnson will be paired off against Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and Ross. Brooklyn’s frontcourt has 330 playoff starts between them in comparison to zero playoff starts for Johnson, Valanciunas and Ross.

While there is an opportunity for Ross and Valanciunas to take advantage with young legs and limitless energy, this series will be a grind for Amir Johnson, likely tasked with guarding Pierce. Trying to stop Pierce is a difficult assignment. An experienced, heady veteran, if he gets hot, he can do serious damage. Further complicating this request of Johnson is the fact that he is Toronto’s best help defender. Having to focus solely on slowing Pierce and trusting his teammates — and team’s defensive system — to take care of their own assignments will be a challenge for Johnson. If he is able to do this, his team will need to be prepared to not have him covering up for their mistakes as he has throughout the regular season.

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BENCH

The Raptors received a huge bench upgrade when their December trade with the Sacramento Kings brought Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, Greivis Vasquez and John Salmons to Toronto. Suddenly armed with a legitimate sixth man in Patterson, a back-up point guard who had previously been a starter in Vasquez and two veteran players, the bench immediately provided a boost. A trade-deadline deal to get Nando De Colo from the San Antonio Spurs gave Dwane Casey another option for his backcourt. Over the course of the second half of the season, with injuries to Lowry and Johnson, the team has had to rely on its reserves and they have responded. Vasquez in particular, has found his rhythm to close out the regular season.

Brooklyn’s starters receive the most attention, but their bench isn’t anything to take lightly. Mason Plumlee has emerged into a solid reserve. Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko understand their roles and play within them. Marcus Thornton can heat up and put points on the board quickly. Toronto will need to keep the energy up when their second unit comes into the game. Expect Johnson and Lowry to battle through foul trouble trying to slow Pierce and Williams. Their backups will need to be ready when called upon.

COACHES

This postseason will be Dwane Casey’s first as a head coach. Part of the reason he was given the reins in Toronto was the impressive job he did as an assistant for the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks team coached by Rick Carlisle. The point guard of that championship-winning squad? Brooklyn Nets head coach Jason Kidd. First-year coach Kidd, a 10-time NBA All-Star, struggled to help the Nets find their footing in the first half of the season and was harshly lambasted by his critics. Prior to the December trade that changed the tide for the Raptors, Casey also found himself on the hot seat. With the Nets and Raptors each turning things around in 2014, things have leveled out for both coaches.

With so much of the talk in the days leading up to Game 1 being about the postseason experience the Nets have over the Raptors, this will be the biggest stage either coach has ever called the shots on. Kidd benefits from a roster full of veterans who have been through years of postseason battles. Casey’s calling card has been his patience and calming nature. Encouraging his players to throw out the stats about postseason minutes played and games won, his continued confidence will be crucial for his young Raptors team.

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X-FACTORS

- Joe Johnson’s clutch gene: When the Brooklyn Nets need a game-winner, Johnson often has it. A perennial All-Star, Johnson knows how to win a basketball game. When the pressure mounts, he flourishes.

- Postseason Terrence Ross: With so much attention being paid to DeRozan and Lowry, there is an opportunity for Ross to surprise people. After dropping 51 points on the Los Angeles Clippers out of nowhere in late January, Ross has proven how potent he can be on the offensive end of the floor. Raptors fans also know he can disrupt things for the player he is tasked with guarding.

- Amir Johnson’s ankles: Johnson says he is feeling good after a week of rest as the regular season was winding down. After battling through ankle injuries all season, the Raptors need their glue guy healthy against the Nets.

- Owning the glass: If the Nets stay with the smaller lineup that features Pierce at the four spot, the Raptors can take advantage by crashing the boards, especially on the offensive end. Every possession counts in the postseason. Earning extra possessions is crucial. Expect the Raptors to try to own the glass.

- Controlling the tempo: One of Toronto’s biggest advantages against Brooklyn is their young legs and energy. While the scheduling of games 1-3 favour the Nets with two days in between each contest, if the Raptors can use their athleticism and control the pace of the game, they will force the Nets to try to keep up.

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