Brooklyn had championship aspirations ever since it acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on draft night, but ended the 2013 calendar year at 10-21, with All-Star center Brook Lopez out for the season, and searching for answers under rookie head coach Jason Kidd. While Pierce and Garnett were important in getting the Nets into the postseason, Kidd’s insertion of another offseason signing, Shaun Livingston, into the starting five is what really propelled the team on both ends.
Toronto’s aspirations were thousands of miles from lofty. Head coach Dwane Casey readily admitted throughout the season that the Raptors did not expect to reach the postseason. They offloaded Rudy Gay in a deal that most thought would get the team closer to Canadian prodigy Andrew Wiggins, not the postseason. But surprisingly, everything was coming up Raptors.
Kyle Lowry pushed past the dogged trade rumors and had a tremendous regular season. DeMar DeRozan finally developed into an All-Star scorer and lived up to his lucrative contract. Jonas Valanciunas continued his improvement. Native son Drake became a team brand ambassador, and the team took home the Atlantic Division title and the third seed in the East.
So that’s how the Nets and Raptors, and not the Knicks or Celtics, became the two Atlantic teams to reach the postseason. And now they face one another in what could be the most tightly contested series in the conference. Here are five factors you should look out for over the course of the next two weeks.
1) The Point Guard Factor
The two teams run through their star point guards Lowry and Deron Williams, make no mistake about that. Lowry was one of the 10 most valuable players in the league this season in terms of win shares, and was among the leaders in numerous statistical categories:
|O Win Shares||8.4||8|
He distributed the ball, made threes and was extremely efficient on offense despite playing the 13th most minutes in the league this season. He was truly exceptional.
And then there’s his counterpart Deron Williams, the true linchpin of the Brooklyn offense. Though his scoring average was his worst since his rookie season and his assists per game was at its lowest level in seven years, Brooklyn was 7-11 in games he missed due to injury.
In the 37 wins the Nets accrued with Williams on the floor, the point guard scored 123 points per 100 possessions. In 27 losses, that number plummets to 98 points per 100 possessions. That 25-point swing, and his battle royale with Lowry, will be a huge determining factor in the series.
2) The Bench Factor
One team has depth and one team doesn’t. DeRozan played the third most minutes of any player this season, with Lowry coming in at 13th. Kidd has done a very good job of resting his players over the course of the season, and the emergence of Livingston, rookie Mason Plumlee and midseason acquisition Marcus Thornton were vital in resting the team’s important, rusting cogs.
How much better is the Nets’ bench? Observe:
|Benches||Minutes||FG %||3 FG %||Points||Rebounds||FTA|
The point won’t be belabored, but the Brooklyn reserves are tops among benches in free throw attempts, second in minutes, third in rebounds and fifth in field goal percentage and points. Toronto’s highest league rank in any of those categories is 18th.
Don’t be surprised if Brooklyn rides its bench to an opening round “upset.”
3) The Garnett Factor
Garnett, a factor? He missed the entire month of March, and his 54 games played was the lowest of his career. He only played nine games after the All-Star break and the team didn’t miss a beat with Plumlee and Andray Blatche filling the void. Brooklyn went 27-27 with him and 17-11 without him.
But look at the numbers when he performs well and when he performs poorly.
|Garnett||Field Goal %||True Shooting %||Free Throw %||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating|
That’s an enormous difference in how KG plays in wins rather than losses, a total difference of 24 points per 100 possessions between wins and losses. When Garnett is on he’s really good and Brooklyn wins. But when he’s off his game, he looks every bit like a 37-year-old with a ton of mileage on his body.
4) The Valanciunas Factor
The Lithuanian center is only 21 years old and developed before our eyes since the All-Star break, transforming from a neutral player on the floor to a difference-making force that a small-ball team like Brooklyn (29th in rebounds per game) cannot contend with.
|Valanciunas||Field Goal %||True Shooting %||Free Throw %||O Rating||D Rating||Net Rating|
Valanciunas was 12 points more valuable to Toronto per 100 possessions after the All-Star break, while his shooting numbers got a lot better. It’s pretty rare when your three best players, Lowry, DeRozan, Valanciunas, all make huge strides together in the same season.
That’s a pretty huge factor in Toronto’s favor.
5) The Recency Factor
While the Raptors won six of their last eight games to finish in the third slot, Joe Johnson and the Nets dropped four of their final five games to enter the Toronto-Miami part of the bracket while avoiding Chicago and Indiana. Will Brooklyn show rust? Will Toronto be bolstered by its April run? The only way to find out is to watch Game One.
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