Neither the Toronto Raptors nor the Brooklyn Nets looked like playoff contenders early in the 2013-14 NBA season. The Nets were underachieving despite being the league's newest "superteam," while the Raptors were seemingly on a mission to land Andrew Wiggins in the upcoming draft.
As it turns out, both teams flipped the switch, and both are candidates when searching for this year's Cinderella.
In four regular-season matchups, Brooklyn and Toronto split the series two games apiece. Entering the playoffs, the Raptors are the ones with momentum, as they've won nine of their last 12.
The Nets have lost four of their last five, although that may have been by design. Brooklyn may have made the conscious decision to squander an opportunity for the fifth seed, giving us even more to talk about as we prepare for this series.
Seeds: Brooklyn Nets, No. 6; Toronto Raptors, No. 3
Records: Brooklyn Nets, 44-38; Toronto Raptors, 48-34
Season Series: Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors tied 2-2
Schedule for Series: Game 1, Saturday, April 19, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN); Game 2, Tuesday, April 22, 8 p.m. ET (NBA TV); Game 3, Friday, April 25, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2); Game 4, Sunday, April 27, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5, Wednesday, April 30, TBD; Game 6, Friday, May 2, TBD; Game 7, Sunday, May 4, TBD
Key Storyline For Brooklyn
If the Nets were any other team with the same record, nobody would consider them a championship-or-bust unit. That said, that's exactly what they became in the offseason when they mortgaged their future for short-term success.
Brooklyn has had the epitome of a roller-coaster season. It was deemed a contender before the year began, but then it was quickly mocked as a pretender when it started 4-12.
By the New Year, the Nets were just 10-21. That, however, is when things turned, and Brooklyn went 10-1 to start January.
|Brooklyn Nets' 2013-14 Record By Month|
|Record That Month||Total Record at the End of the Month|
We've watched this roster transform from old and beaten to crafty and experienced. As we enter the postseason, the question is: Which characteristic will supersede the other? Can Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett utilize their championship experience, or will their age (36 and 37, respectively) play a negative role in the equation when it matters most?
To some, Brooklyn's two-game losing streak to close out the year (as well as four losses in the final five games) looks like a calculated strategy to earn the sixth seed. Not only does Brooklyn avoid a stout Chicago Bulls defense in Round 1, but it sets itself up for a potential second-round showdown with the Miami Heat—a team Brooklyn swept in the regular season.
The question here, if the Nets did indeed drop games for matchup purposes, is: Did they overlook the hungry Raptors? Fans in Toronto will be talking about that leading up to the series, and if things go their way, they'll be bringing it up well beyond the first round.
Key Storyline for Toronto
The Nets aren't the only team in this series that has had an up-and-down season.
Toronto started the year in unimposing fashion. On Dec. 9—one day after Toronto earned its seventh win in 19 games—general manager Masai Ujiri dealt Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in a move that had fans thinking the blowup was in full effect.
Ujiri could have started anew right there and tanked for a draft pick started the rebuild, but instead he recognized his team's potential in a watered-down Eastern Conference.
Simply put: The Raptors started from the bottom; now they're here.
Trite Drake quips aside, this group has done incredible things. After dealing Gay, the team went 41-22 and established itself as a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to ESPN.com.
As ESPN's Tom Haberstroh stated back in March, "But we need to take the Raptors very seriously. And here's why: Since trading Rudy Gay, they've played as well as Miami and Indiana." Haberstroh was, and still is, exactly right, but there's one question we must ask ourselves: Will youth and athleticism outweigh inexperience in the playoffs?
Toronto hasn't been to the postseason since 2008, yet it won a franchise-record 48 games en route to earning home-court advantage. The theme involving both teams surrounds age and experience, making both squads perfect adversaries in Round 1.
Jonas Valanciunas may be a 21-year-old second-year player, but his impact on this series could help swing things in Toronto's favor.
In the month of April, the 6'11" center averaged 18 points and 11.7 rebounds while shooting 57 percent from the field. As B/R's Stephen Babb put it, "Valanciunas is certainly getting hot at the right time. He's giving the Raptors the opportunity to rely less exclusively on DeRozan and the perimeter game, and that will be key as games slow down in the playoffs."
Unfortunately for Toronto, Valanciunas isn't a proven product, but that's what makes him an X-factor. He's not yet the defender he could be later in his career, but in a battle against small ball, he becomes the last line of defense in emergency situations.
For Brooklyn, you have to look at a less traditional X-factor: Deron Williams. Williams is a point guard who has been a superstar most of his career, yet he hasn't played like one for parts of this season.
Which Williams shows up will be huge in deciding this series, as it determines whether or not the Nets have another star on their side. If it's the Williams of old, Brooklyn's in good shape. If it's a Williams who struggles against Kyle Lowry, the team could be in trouble.
Speaking of Williams and Lowry, let's keep the discussion focused on the point guard position.
From a historical standpoint, Williams earns the nod over Lowry, and it's not even close. He's a three-time All-Star and was once widely considered a top-two point guard in the NBA, while Lowry's been known as a tradable asset for quite some time.
Then again, this isn't about the past, which is why the stats of each floor general this season change the narrative 180 degrees.
|2013-14 Statistics: Deron Williams vs. Kyle Lowry|
|PPG||APG||RPG||PER||Offensive Win Shares||Defensive Win Shares||Total Win Shares|
|ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com|
Lowry has been more accomplished than his counterpart this year, giving fans in Toronto reason for optimism. That, however, is why Williams is an X-factor. A return to form from the 29-year-old could be what Brooklyn needs to counter age and emphasize experience.
This series has the potential to be one of the most tightly contested matchups of Round 1. Three of the four regular-season meetings were decided by four points or fewer, and while the seeds don't show it, this conference quarterfinal features two of the best teams out East since the turn of the calendar.
As much as the Raptors have done to revive both their organization and their fanbase, the Nets have a slight edge.
Experience will be the deciding factor, but in the eyes of DeMar DeRozan, youthfulness is more important than production of the past, per NBA.com: "We understand that they're experienced and everything, but hey, who isn't? Once you come in this league you're going against players all season that's experienced in some type of way. You just got to figure out how to win."
Whichever team wins this series, a great story will be told. It will either be a resilient effort from an up-and-coming roster or a comeback story for a veteran squad in the twilight of its championship window.
Don't think for a second that the Raptors will lie down in this one, but if experience is all it's cracked up to be—and it usually is—it should be the Nets walking away in a series that could very well go all seven games.
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