After a five-year playoff drought, the Toronto Raptors weren't just happy to be back in the postseason—they were ecstatic. Uncontrollable, almost.
For the battle-scarred Brooklyn Nets, though, Saturday's series-opening 94-87 win was more mundane than momentous. The Raptors were cautiously testing the playoff waters; the Nets were lathering, rinsing and repeating, as Sean Grande of CBS Sports suggested:
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett played 85 playoff games together the last six years in Boston. Riding a bike...— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) April 19, 2014
Three Raptors starters made their postseason debuts Saturday (DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas). Kyle Lowry entered as the senior leader of the group, having previously made 13 playoff appearances as a Houston Rockets reserve in 2009.
Experience won't be the deciding factor in this series, but its importance was already put on full display. The Raptors seemed rattled. Simple plays couldn't have been more difficult, according to Sean Highkin of Hardwood Paroxysm:
Raptors have been missing so many easy layups. And they’re still only down two.— Sean Highkin (@highkin) April 19, 2014
Turnovers in this game are now 18 for Toronto and eight for the Nets.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 19, 2014
Valanciunas imposed his will on the interior (18 rebounds, 17 points), but he coughed up six of the team's 19 turnovers in the process. DeRozan, the team's lone All-Star selection, tried doing too much. His 8-of-8 performance at the foul line was the only thing keeping his stat sheet from looking inefficient, as opposed to incompetent (14 points, 3-of-13 shooting).
Toronto used its physical gifts to run up a 45-37 edge on the glass and a 14-10 advantage in fast-break points. When the tempo slowed and it came time to manufacture offense, the Raptors had no answers for Brooklyn's length and discipline, as Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk hinted:
When Toronto has attacked in transition, pushed at the rim they've gotten looks. Half court ball has been just ugly.— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) April 19, 2014
The Raptors weathered an early storm—the Nets jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first—and the teams traded blows for the first 43 minutes. Greivis Vasquez's triple gave Toronto a 76-75 lead at the 5:13 mark of the fourth, but the Nets responded with a coffin-closing 11-2 run over the next four minutes.
Toronto couldn't find a way to stop the bleeding. Brooklyn just had to find "The Truth."
Pierce scored the final seven points of that run and supplied the Nets' last four field goals.
Toronto had no answer in the battle of the bullpens. Then again, why would it? When's the last time the Raptors had something substantial that needed closing?
All of this was new for Toronto, and that inexperience showed. The only thing Pierce showed was a Mariano Rivera-type coolness down the stretch, the confidence that comes from having been there and won there before.
The Truth does what The Truth does #Nets— Mike Mazzeo (@MazzESPN) April 19, 2014
There's supposed to be a give-and-take with this experience talk. That added mileage helps the mental makeup, but theoretically, it takes a physical toll.
First-year Nets coach Jason Kidd did what he could to negate those effects by buying his players some needed rest down the stretch. That foresight paid immediate dividends, as his roster of old-timers seemed more energetic than the youthful Raptors, and Kevin Garnett confirmed it, via TheBrooklynGame.com's Devin Kharpertian:
KG: “I had a ton of energy today. God damn, I had a ton of energy today."— devin kharpertian (@uuords) April 19, 2014
Those benefits won't be lost anytime soon, either.
These two teams won't tango again until Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBATV). They'll have another lengthy rest before locking horns for Game 3 next Friday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2).
Brooklyn doesn't need to monitor its reserve tanks, because there's ample opportunity to refill them along the way. That's why it can attack with reckless abandon, something Nets fans saw out of Williams for the first time in a long time, per Mazzeo:
Deron Williams averaged 14.3 points and 11.2 shot attempts per game in regular season. 18 points on 17 shots - in the first half today #Nets— Mike Mazzeo (@MazzESPN) April 19, 2014
The box score wasn't clean on either side (Toronto's turnover woes, Brooklyn's 16.7 three-point percentage), but the Nets found a way to fight through their misfortune. They didn't encounter any major issues; they simply had an uncharacteristically rough night from distance (Brooklyn shot 36.9 percent during the regular season, 11th overall).
Assuming those three-point bombs fall with more regularity moving forward, the Raptors may not get a better chance than the one they just let slip away, as Hardwood Paroxysm alluded to:
Good win by Brooklyn when they didn't play all that well. Raptors have a lot to regret about this one— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 19, 2014
Momentum has shifted—or simply stayed with Brooklyn if you believe the countless number of experts who favored the sixth seed going in.
The Nets stole home-court advantage, which could prove major down the line. Brooklyn hadn't been a great road team in the regular season (16-25), but it was a force at Barclays Center (28-13). The Raptors posted a rather forgettable 22-19 mark away from home, a number that's not so forgettable considering Toronto will need at least one road victory to escape this series.
The Raptors should play better going forward.
DeRozan, Ross and Amir Johnson were good for 44 points a night in the regular season. They had 19 combined in Game 1. Toronto shot itself in the foot with turnovers, but this has been one of the league's better teams in terms of limiting giveaways (14.1 per game, ninth fewest).
When even the shot clock shuts down, you have to wonder if just maybe it wasn't Toronto's day.
The Raptors also found a mountain of potential production in Valanciunas. He had a dominant double-double, and that might actually be his basement for the series. He's a nightmare matchup for Brooklyn's frontcourt.
All of these signs point to Toronto keeping things close with Brooklyn—but that could be another advantage for the Nets.
They won't be burned by the playoff heat, bothered by the raucous fans or scared by the size of this stage. This is a team with championship aspirations—the Nets won't make the first round any bigger than it is.
The Raptors can't act that way. Securing the No. 3 seed was likely never the goal. They're playing with house money.
If that house money makes the Raptors carefree and this relaxed schedule keeps the Nets fresh, maybe everyone will be content: Toronto for making it to this stage, Brooklyn for executing on it.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.