Toronto Raptors' Young Stars Proving Viable Antidote for Nets' Seasoned Vets

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2014

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The story for the Toronto Raptors after Game 1 was DeMar DeRozan's ineffectiveness. The script got flipped on Tuesday night, as the 24-year-old from Compton, Ca., proved he was ready for the postseason after all, exploding in Game 2 to lead his Raptors over the Brooklyn Nets, 100-95.

But DeRozan wasn't alone in Game 2. 

Big men Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson combined for 43 points. Point guard Kyle Lowry and backup guard Greivis Vasquez combined for 25 points. The young, balanced core was enough to overcome a veteran Nets attack this time led by Joe Johnson and his 18 points.

Brooklyn's elder statesmen weren't up to the task. Kevin Garnett had a solid game (13 points, 5-of-6 from the field) but played just 19 minutes. Paul Pierce made just two of his 11 field goals after coming up big late in Game 1.

Deron Williams had 15 points but was just 5-of-15 for the game.

The Nets arguably showed some of their true colors Tuesday night. Even with their small-ball approach in hand, this team continues to live and die by the jump shot. When it isn't falling, the Nets have precious few options. They can no longer rely on Brook Lopez to anchor a post game, and Garnett certainly isn't the interior threat he once was.

In contrast, Toronto's younger, more athletic big men have become X-factors. Valanciunas was Toronto's best player in Game 1, and he got a lot of help Tuesday night from Johnson and Patterson. As a team, the Raptors out-rebounded Brooklyn by an astounding 52-30 margin. Toronto had 19 offensive rebounds.

As much credit as DeRozan deserves for closing this one out, it was the rebounding that kept the Raptors in the game. The Nets don't have the size or athleticism to compete on the glass, and it could be a potentially damning liability in a series expected to be determined by close games—the kind of games where number of possessions makes the difference.

Despite turning the ball over twice as many times as the Nets (21 to Brooklyn's 10), Toronto still attempted one more field goal than Brooklyn. Rebounds were the reason.

It's not just the bigs chipping in, either. Lowry had nine rebounds from the point-guard position. The Raptors are simply playing quicker, stronger and with a little more determination.

At least that was the case in Game 2. We'd be wise not to read too much into one game, either of the games these teams have played so far. The momentum belongs to Toronto for now, but the Nets did steal home-court advantage.

They also have all that vaunted playoff experience on which to rely. Can the Raptors really scrap their way to what almost feels like an upset (ignoring seeding for a moment)?

There are doubters to be sure.

But the Raptors had their detractors long before the series began. For every analyst who saw them as a dark horse, others will insist that they're too young, too inexperienced, too unaccustomed to executing down the stretch. These are the kind of systemic risks that can't be ignored. Both teams will have their moments shooting the ball, but who's better adept at running plays in close games?

The edge ostensibly goes to Brooklyn. 

Based on conventional wisdom, anyway. But the Raptors haven't been relying on anything that's especially conventional.

In a league where traditional centers have supposedly gone the way of the dinosaur, the Raptors are feeding the post early and often. They're asking Valanciunas to establish an inside presence and make the most of Toronto's size advantage. In his first two playoff games, the 21-year-old has a combined 32 points and 32 rebounds.

That might not qualify as a dominant performance, but it may be as close as we get to one in a series characterized by two very balanced teams. 

Unless and until the Nets give up on small-ball, Valanciunas will remain central to Toronto's game plan.

Outside of DeRozan, Amir Johnson was the other big difference between Game 1 and Game 2. He plays into the inside attack as well, giving the Raptors another option who can pound the paint against a smaller lineup. In Game 1, Johnson had just two points in 21 minutes. In Game 2, he had 16 points in 37 minutes.

The Raptors need their supporting cast to be aggressive. DeRozan could have another 30-point game in the offing, but Toronto's strategy of going inside is more contingent on what Valanciunas and Johnson do. So long as they're both looking for quick shots in the paint, Brooklyn's in trouble.

The Nets have the bigger names, but Toronto has the bigger bodies—and seems to be learning how to exploit them.

Toronto is also demonstrating more composure than we might have expected. Young as this roster is, it didn't throw up its hands after dropping a winnable Game 1. It hasn't been overwhelmed by the prevailing notion that Brooklyn claimed the momentum out of the gate, at least not yet. 

Instead, with a close game on the line, Toronto rose to the task with a huge fourth quarter.

Now, the question is how Brooklyn reacts. Now, there's some pressure on the old guys to earn their exorbitant salaries.

There might even be some frustration.

Shouldn't these Raptors have been easier to handle, even on the road? Wasn't this the series Brooklyn wanted all along? Aren't guys like Paul Pierce supposed to be immune to terrible shooting performances when it matters most?

It turns out rough games don't just happen to playoff novices. Sometimes, those novices are the ones who bounce back, unaffected and undeterred by recent history. Sometimes, they go for 17 fourth-quarter points, hitting the big shots that Pierce and Joe Johnson are supposed to make instead.

If you believe the end of Game 2 was just one of those anomalous things that happen sometimes, then you won't be worrying too much on Brooklyn's behalf. If you've paid any attention to the Toronto Raptors this season, you know better.

This young team is just getting started.