Playoff time: Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets preview

toronto raptorsThe Brooklyn Nets have a total team salary upwards of $100 million dollars while the Toronto Raptors are slightly under $70 mil. Brooklyn has two sure-fire Hall-of-Famers in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and a superstar point guard in Deron Williams, meanwhile Toronto has a combined total of one All-Star appearance on its entire roster coming from DeMar DeRozan this season. Eye-grabbing headlines as such are going to dominate the conversation surrounding the Brooklyn-Toronto series, but don’t be fooled into thinking Toronto is the underdog.

Although Toronto’s season could be surmised as the underdog story of the 2013-2014 NBA season, that alone couldn’t capture or do justice to understanding how well the Raptors have played since they traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento on December 9th, owning the league’s best record of 42-21 since. How far have the Raptors come this season? They won a franchise record 48 games, without a game-changing presence like a Vince Carter or a Chris Bosh-type.

Instead, the Raptors are made-up of selfless hard working, team-oriented guys. No slight to the Vince Carter and Chris Bosh Raptor teams of the past, but this year’s team has been the most exciting Raptor team to watch on a nightly-basis, ever. Ball-movement, cohesiveness on defense – the Raptors also have something that’s been unsurprisingly overlooked by people who haven’t been following closely: end-of-game flexibility.

Throughout the season, Kyle Lowry’s fierce grit instilled him into a leadership role he willingly commanded. Yet, DeMar DeRozan is the one who the offense is ran through, and since day one of entering the league, DeRozan possessed the gift (and at times, the curse) of always being able to get off his own shot, especially late. DeRozan commands the primary focus of defenses for his pure offensive talent, which allowed Lowry to steadily take advantage of that all season. In a sense, a good Catch-22.

The debate over who the guy is for a team at end of games is important, and I get that. I would say the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant warrants that discussion. But what nobody seems to notice about the Raptors is that they’re always looking to run the best play or find the most beneficial matchup, neither Lowry nor DeRozan greedily demand to be the guy with the ball in his hands. And at the same time, both are fully capable of being the guy with the ball in his hands come crunch time. In my opinion it’s an ideal circumstance, not an unpleasant dilemma.

The combination of Lowry and DeRozan in a late-game situation is the Raptors biggest strength because neither have the ego to be above the team. They’ve defected to the other when necessary, and been the aggressor when appropriate. With all that being said, all you’ll hear about the Raptors is how inexperienced they are, and they haven’t tasted success before. Let’s not forget that this group of Nets players are playing in the postseason together for their first time too. Not one guy on the Nets right now has gone past the first round of the playoffs as a Net.

The Raptors are not the underdog, although they may embrace that role internally. Still, Brooklyn remains the popular pick, and I understand why. To their credit, they’ve played just as strong of basketball as Toronto has for about three-fourths of the season. During the regular season the two teams split their season series 2-2, but one of the victories Toronto nabbed ended up becoming a season-defining victory in Brooklyn on January 27th by way of a game winning steal-and-score transaction by Patrick Patterson, who was acquired through the Rudy Gay trade.

I could see this series going the full seven games in a nice flowing but physical series. In that, I expect more offense than maybe some will, because both teams really stick to their half-court sets well. In the end, I like the matchups across the board for the Raptors and am picking them to win in 6.

Whatever Brooklyn decides to do strategically, Toronto can match with personnel that is younger and more athletic than Brooklyn. If Brooklyn decides to go small-ball to ax the red-hot as of late Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto can counteract with Tyler Hansbrough or Amir Johnson at the five, and Patterson as the stretch four. Toronto’s backcourt is as flexible as any left in the playoffs with Greivis Vasquez’s ability to play the one or two, giving them maneuverability there.

I don’t see many areas for Brooklyn to exploit Toronto on defense, if the argument for Brooklyn to win this series rests upon experience (and I’m not much of a gambler), but I wouldn’t advise taking that to Vegas. In the first round of the NBA playoffs, talent is going to win-out more often than not, which is why Toronto is my pick. Lastly, you don’t have to agree with my basketball intellect, but do I at least get kudos for not making a single Drake or Jay-Z reference?