Paul Pierce said "without a doubt" this series would go seven. He and the Brooklyn Nets made good on that prediction by beating the Toronto Raptors Friday by a final score of 97-83 at the Barclays Center.
It was Game 6 of the tightly contested first-round series which has pitted youth and athleticism against savvy and experience.
Following the victory, Kevin Garnett let us all know he's done this before:
“You can’t come in here and get a win, not when it’s like this. I had to go into a vintage bag of tricks.” - Kevin Garnett— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) May 3, 2014
As did Pierce:
Paul Pierce: "I love these situations."— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 3, 2014
Now the older, more seasoned Nets will have to employ those old tricks at the Air Canada Centre, where the Raptors are 2-1 in this series.
The fans there have arguably been the best the first round has seen, and this kind of enthusiasm can go a long way toward rallying the home team:
Seeds: Toronto Raptors No. 3; Brooklyn Nets No. 6
Series: Tied 3-3
Schedule for Series: Game 7, Sunday, May 4, TBD
Key Storylines for Brooklyn Nets
The Nets need to find some way to defend the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They may not be shooting the ball terribly well, but they're still carrying Toronto's offense:
|Rest of Team||50.2||46.6%|
The 44.8 points Lowry and DeRozan are averaging account for nearly half—47.2 percent, to be exact—of the scoring the Raptors have done in this series.
Nets coach Jason Kidd tried to adjust Friday by starting Alan Anderson over Shaun Livingston for defensive purposes, but the effect was minimal. Brooklyn got the victory, but DeRozan still scored a game-high 28 points.
That didn't hurt the Nets in Game 6, since pretty much every other Raptor laid an egg, but if just one or two more get going in Game 7, Brooklyn could be in trouble.
So what's the key to stopping DeRozan? Obviously, this is easier said than done, but the Nets need to keep him off the free throw line. He's averaging 12 attempts from the stripe so far in the series, and it's not just because he's beating his man off the dribble.
Brooklyn's rotations on DeRozan's drives are usually a step or two late, and being out of position leads to lunging, reaching and fouls. When he catches the ball, all five Nets need to be keyed in on what he's doing and ready to rotate. If they get to their spots on time and DeRozan kicks to an open shooter, they'll have to live with it. To this point, no one else has hurt them enough to be worried about that.
As for Lowry, the Nets were able to hold him down Friday, as he scored just 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting. And it looked like the struggle frustrated him:
Lowry and DeRozan clearly annoyed that Casey called time when they had a transition chance. Looked like Lowry yelled at him going to bench.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) May 3, 2014
Lowry is an emotional player, and if the Nets can get him flustered early again, they'll have the upper hand in that matchup and the game in general.
If they're able to advance, the storylines about the rivalry between the Nets and the Miami Heat will explode. Brooklyn took the season series 4-0, but we know the postseason is a different beast and the history between Pierce, Garnett, LeBron James and Ray Allen will amp up the intensity even further.
Key Storylines for Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have failed to take advantage of what should be their biggest mismatch in this series, as Jonas Valanciunas isn't getting anywhere near as many looks as he should on offense.
The Nets don't have anyone that can handle the seven-foot bruiser inside, and yet, he's only taking 7.3 shots per game in this series. That looks even stranger when you see that he's making five of those shots per game.
Want more reasons to feed Valaciunas? He's averaging 10.5 rebounds in less than 30 minutes per game. When the big guy is working hard on the stuff the guards don't like to do, he deserves some touches inside. And he's shown that once he gets it in there, he knows how to score.
He's dominating Garnett in their individual matchup, and just needs more chances to do so. If that becomes the case Sunday, Brooklyn will have to focus more attention on him inside, opening things up for Lowry and DeRozan on the perimeter.
When that happens, they'll have a better chance of winning the game, giving them their first playoff series victory since 2001.
Anderson may have started over Livingston in Game 6, but the latter has been Brooklyn's X-factor for months, and he should be again on Sunday.
Livingston is dynamic in that he does a little bit of everything in the limited minutes he plays. This series, he's averaging 8.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 24.8 minutes.
What really makes him a unique challenge for Toronto is that he's often on the floor with Deron Williams, giving the Nets a very big backcourt that essentially forces the Raptors to pick their poison.
If you put a smaller defender on the 6'7" Livingston, he'll use his underrated post game to attack. Against a bigger guy, he can get to the bucket off the dribble.
On the other side, Toronto's X-factor is very similar to Livingston.
At 6'6", Greivis Vasquez is just an inch shorter and plays a similar combo guard role. In the series, he's averaging 11.5 points and a team-leading 5.8 assists.
If Lowry struggles again, Toronto will need Vasquez to pick up some of his production.
Key Matchup: Deron Williams vs. Kyle Lowry
Williams dominated Lowry in Game 6, and the final score reflected that.
According to the Associated Press (via ESPN), Williams had this to say following his 23-point performance on Friday:
I know myself, I needed to be more aggressive after the last two losses...
In the three games we've won, I've been really aggressive getting into the paint, making things happen, not only scoring the ball but making the extra pass, and so I know that's what my team needs me to do.
The difference is clear when you look at the numbers. Williams is averaging 23 points in Brooklyn's three wins, compared to 12.7 in the losses.
That extra aggression seems to impact Lowry too, as he's averaging 16 points and shooting 34.9 percent in Toronto's losses. When he's having to expend more energy on the defensive end, either on Williams or in cross-matchups, Lowry's offense suffers.
This series has largely gone as these two guards have gone, and that should continue Sunday.
Despite playing at home, in front of a raucous crowd, the Raptors looked a little tense at the start of Game 1. Nerves could creep back into the equation in Game 7:
Jason Kidd: "Game 7 is just like Game 1, and we have to find a way to win on the road. That's the bottom line."— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 3, 2014
For that reason, the Nets could get off to a strong start as they did in Games 1 and 6. According to the Associated Press (via ESPN), DeRozan commented on that Friday, saying, "We should've known they were going to come out throwing haymakers and we weren't ready for it until the second half."
They better be ready for that Sunday, because the Nets have plenty of players who know how to close out a series, and they'll come out swinging.
If they get the Raptors on the ropes early again, Brooklyn's experience in these situations should be enough to hold the lead and book an appointment with the defending champs.
Prediction: Nets defeat Raptors, 95-86.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.