The Brooklyn Nets have lost four of their last five games, and with them the fifth seed going into the 2013-14 playoffs. The most recent defeat came Wednesday night at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The final score tells you all you need to know about how much Brooklyn wanted this one: 114-85.
So in case you weren't sold, yes, the last day of the regular season mattered—and to the Nets as much as anyone.
Some will maintain that the Nets' chances of a deep playoff run just got easier. They might even think the Nets tanked their way to this point.
Nets back to tank-er-ama at start of second half in Cleveland. Looking like if Heat advance it's vs. winner of Raptors-Nets.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) April 17, 2014
Nets tank their last game and lose. Wizards win. This means Wizards get 5 seed and face the Bulls. Nets get 6 seed and play Raptors.— Basketball Forever (@Bballforeverfb) April 17, 2014
Dwane Casey won't have to rely on bulletin board material given this well-executed strategic Nets tank. Brooklyn boldly calling out Raptors.— Tony Mejia (@TonyMejiaNBA) April 17, 2014
The Nets first face an upstart Raptors team without significant postseason experience on which to rely.
Games of playoff experience- Nets starting five: 399, Raps starting five: 24— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 17, 2014
All causes for optimism, right?
Only at first glance.
Levelheaded Nets fans didn't want this to happen. They'd have taken a short-handed Bulls team in the first round any day of the week. They'd have taken their chances against the struggling Indiana Pacers in the semifinals, regardless of the success against Miami.
This was not a good day for Brooklyn.
Inexperienced though they may be, the Raptors will pose problems for Brooklyn. They stand a good chance of keeping up with the Nets' newfound small-ball attack. With Amir Johnson more mobile than your average power forward, don't expect Paul Pierce to remain open all day long on the perimeter.
And in the middle, the Nets may face a difficult decision. Kevin Garnett is healthy again and will ostensibly start at center, but you'd have to think rookie Mason Plumlee may be better situated to do the low-post banging against Jonas Valanciunas. Either way, Valanciunas has been on a tear lately and could quietly emerge as an X-factor in the series. He's averaging 17.3 points and 10.9 rebounds in his last 10 games.
But OK, we know Valanciunas alone isn't enough to make the Raptors the favorites in this series.
The problem is the rest of this roster is pretty good, too. What it lacks in big names, it makes up for in cohesion, athleticism and sheer spunk. Behind Johnson—himself a dangerous offensive rebounder—the Raptors can bring Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson off the bench, both very capable at the 4-spot.
That kind of depth in the paint could prove pivotal over the course of a seven-game series, especially with games slowing down in the postseason.
Toronto's speed on the wing will also keep Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce on their heels. DeMar DeRozan is a born slasher with a much-expanded game this season. Terrence Ross can shoot from anywhere and has a dangerous first step.
Johnson and Pierce will show their age (32 and 36, respectively)—in good and bad ways alike. Yes, they have a huge advantage in craftiness. But they will struggle to keep a couple of hungry, young scorers in front of them.
You'd instinctively give Deron Williams the advantage at point, but compare his line to Kyle Lowry's this season.
Don't let the name recognition fool you. These Raptors are much better than advertised, mostly because—unless you religiously follow team ambassador Drake—they aren't advertised. No one talks about the Raptors, and it's made them one of this season's premier dark-horse candidates. ESPN's Tom Haberstroh suggested we take notice back in March (subscription required):
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. Believe it. The Raptors have gone 31-16 (.660) since Gay left the team on Dec. 8 and have outscored opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions over that time. That's right in between the Heat and the Pacers in terms of point differential.
Apparently Jason Kidd isn't an ESPN Insider.
If the Nets wanted this matchup to happen, they made a grievous mistake.
Let's get one thing straight about Brooklyn's four wins against the Heat. Three of them were decided by one point. The fourth was decided in overtime. Dwyane Wade was absent for two of those games. And oh yeah, by the way, they were regular-season games, games through which Miami can often afford to sleepwalk.
Does anyone really believe Plumee's last-second block on LeBron James established some kind of psychological edge? Here's a thought to the contrary—when you've won two straight NBA titles, no one has a psychological edge on you, certainly not a rookie center who may or may not have fouled King James on the defining play in question.
Miami would love to face the Nets, especially without Brook Lopez in the picture. Brooklyn's small-ball fascination comes as welcome news to the Heat, who've been rolling with a small-ball lineup for some time now.
Brooklyn's lineup gives Miami the luxury of playing LeBron James at the 4, giving more minutes to shooters such as Shane Battier and Ray Allen on the wing. That's exactly how the Heat want to play.
The Nets may stand a better chance than most teams against Miami, but that doesn't mean they have a good chance.
More than any other team outside perhaps the San Antonio Spurs, Miami knows how to flip the switch—that switch, that "it's time for the playoffs, so let's stop messing around" switch. Individually, there are players on Jason Kidd's roster who have done the same—but they haven't done so collectively, not as the unit in which they now find themselves.
Forget the regular season. The Heat would be favorites in this series for all the reasons they'd be favored to win any other series.
The Nets would have had a better shot against the Indiana Pacers. Anyone would. The Pacers have been in serious trouble, and they're far too untested to talk about any switch-flipping. They're suffering through an identity crisis that might have created quite the opportunity for Brooklyn.
The Question Marks
In their apparent quest to face the Toronto Raptors in the first round, the Nets haven't done themselves any favors. Let's disregard the matchups for a moment.
Where is Brooklyn's momentum? Outside of the last game against the Heat, what is it hanging its hat on right now? Certainly not losses to the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks—much less the uncontested game against the Cavs.
The Nets are trying to work in Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko at an awkward juncture. Neither has had enough time to find a groove, but both will be essential to a deep postseason run. Can they find some semblance of rhythm without disrupting the good things Brooklyn once had going?
There's also the matter of Brooklyn's age. All that playoff experience comes at a price. This is an old team, more susceptible to wear and tear than any other roster in the Eastern Conference playoffs. There's no guarantee any wheels will come off Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson, but there are a lot of 30-somethings on this team playing pivotal roles.
Finally, is Jason Kidd up to this? There's no question his adjustments were largely responsible for turning Brooklyn's season around, but this is a first for him. Now comes the time for rapid adjustments, second-guessing, maintaining composure and leading a locker room that already seems full of leaders.
There's a lot of postseason experience on this roster, but its head coach is walking into this as a newcomer. He could well prove up to the task, but it's yet another unanswered question the Nets face at the moment.
They may have gotten the seed they wanted, but they shouldn't take anything for granted—and certainly not the Raptors. Toronto faces a number of questions, too, but they'll be playing with nothing to lose—no billion-dollar vision, no Jay Z sideshow.
The pressure will be on Kidd and his Nets. Maybe they wouldn't have it any other way.