For basketball fans, the only time more exciting than the start of the NBA regular season is the end of it - when the playoffs begin.
Now that the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled and the stage is set, it's time to start breaking down first-round matchups. The NBA writers here at numberFire are going to jump into each series in a unique numbers-driven way that you won't find anywhere else. And today, I'll be looking at the Raptors and Nets - a series between two teams close in seeding.
Toronto Raptors (3)
Championship Odds: 4.2%
Brooklyn Nets (6)
Championship Odds: 0.7%
Regular Season Series - Raptors 2, Nets 2
These two split their four games during the regular season, with each of them stealing one at the other's house.
Other than Toronto's 16-point blowout win at home in early January, the Nets and Raptors kept their games close, with a combined deficit margin of just seven points.
In that big Raptors win, the Nets started slow and finished even slower, after scoring just 16 points in the final quarter. Brooklyn struggled to chalk up 80 points, while Toronto was dominate on the glass (49-39) and efficient from downtown (.440).
In each of the Nets' wins over the Raptors, Brooklyn received scoring spikes from role players like Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson, while Toronto didn't shoot the ball particularly well as a team.
If regular season matchups are any indication of how these two meet in the playoffs, it'll be in the Raptors' best interest to get DeMar DeRozan shooting well early on, and to continue dominating the glass against a Nets team that ranked 29th in total rebounds this season.
How the Raptors Can Win
The Raptors will need to embrace the youth, and the balance.
While the Nets are a veteran team with plenty of postseason experience, there's something to be said about the Raptors and their own inexperience. With a roster that averages just 26 years old, Toronto can get out and stay fueled for an entire 48 minutes. They may enter this thing trumped by the likes of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in terms of playoff appearances, but this young Raptors squad also has the benefit of entering the ring with nothing to lose and knockout on their mind.
Additionally, the Raptors were one of the most well-balanced teams in the league this season, ranking in the top 10 in both offensive (108.8) and defensive (105.3) efficiency. The only other teams to do that were the Clippers, Spurs and Thunder, who combine for 14.7% championship odds.
The Raptors' success on offense against the Nets this season has rode the waves of DeRozan - Toronto's only All-Star who's averaging 22.3 points on 50% shooting in three games against Brooklyn in 2014. Get DeRozan hot early, continue to crash the boards, embody the endurance advantage and play like no one expected you to make it this far. Because outside of a handful of homers in Canada, they didn't.
Raptors Player to Watch - Kyle Lowry
One could argue a number of Raptors players for this section, but if forced to pick one, it comes down to the 1-spot.
While Toronto will lean heavily on DeRozan's ability to create and make shots, that's not where it ends. When you look at Kyle Lowry's numbers against the Nets this year, he's the real stud holding the Raptors high.
In addition to being a tough check for nearly every team he faces, Lowry has been especially deadly against Brooklyn this year. In four games, Lowry is averaging 22 points on 50% shooting from the field, 4.8 rebounds and 6 assists. He's also shooting 48% from beyond the arc, helping boost his masterful 124 offensive rating against the Nets this season.
So yes, while DeRozan may serve as the fuel in Toronto's engine, Lowry is the oil. And without him, the Raptors don't run.
How the Nets Can Win
Against a well-rounded team like the Raptors who find success on both ends of the floor, the Nets are going to need to cause disruption, whether by way of impressive scoring, rebounding or a healthy combination of both.
One of the Nets' most effective scorers against the Raptors this season has been veteran Paul Pierce, who averages almost 20 points per game on 56% shooting. They'll need that same kind of scoring for an entire series, and wouldn't mind a little help from Joe Johnson, whose 37% shooting from the floor against Toronto likely isn't enough to get it done in the playoffs.
And when it comes to crashing the boards, the Nets are in a hard spot in which they'll need to contend on the glass, yet are faced with a Toronto team that's clearly the better rebounding unit. Brooklyn will need to make up for lost rebounds in the teams' previous four meetings come first round of the playoffs if they want to make it a series.
Nets Player to Watch - Someone Not Named Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson
While the scoring from Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson - and even Deron Williams - will prove critical, the Nets may get their most significant push from a guy who doesn't necessarily lead the team in minutes.
Can playoff veteran Kevin Garnett increase his ordinary nine points per game average against the Raptors in the postseason? Sure you don't want to rely on him, but can Andray Blatche give you 15-and-7 every game throughout the series? Or will it be an even lesser known rotational player like Shaun Livingston or Alan Anderson who drops double digits out of left field?
It's hard to say where they'll come from, but the Nets need points from players other than Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson.
While the brain tells you to lean toward veteran leadership and the unmatched playoff experience of Brooklyn, the heart says to go with the young Raptors team who enter this thing with nothing to lose, everything to gain and the talent necessary to wreak havoc.
This is a deep Raptors team, plenty capable of putting a disappointing NHL hockey season on their back and carrying Canada into the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
According to our algorithms: Raptors in 5
My final prediction: Raptors in 5