The first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets has had no shortage of interesting stories and controversy, so it’s only fitting that the story come to a close in a winner-take-all Game 7 in one of the rowdiest arenas going in this year’s playoffs.
We’ve talked about how the Raps are young and inexperienced and how the Nets are “dinosaurs” with a huge payroll. We’ve discussed the fondue-eating habits of former Nets shareholder Jay-Z and the court-side lint rolling game of Raptors’ Global Ambassador Drake. We’ve witnessed the growth of a fan base in Toronto that had the Nets tweeting their fans telling them to pay attention and match the intensity of the Raptors in-arena crowd and the now-famous “Jurassic Park” outside the stadium. We’ve had rumors of tanking, heard both sides complain endlessly about the officiating, seen each team steal a game on the road, and play themselves in and out of games.
Now, there’s only Game 7.
Andray Blatche is guaranteeing a Nets win, while the Raptors are hoping to feed off their crowd and the fact that they have nothing to lose to seal the deal. Neither team has ever won a Game 7 in the playoffs and that drought will end for one team today. Which one will it be?
Raptors Player to Watch: Kyle Lowry
DeMar DeRozan is the All-Star on the Raptors, but there’s no denying that Kyle Lowry is the motor of this team and it’s not likely to go anywhere without him leading the charge effectively. Look no further than Lowry’s stats in the three wins in this series versus the three losses:
In the three Raptors losses, Lowry was hampered by turnovers and got in foul trouble. He didn’t shoot the ball well and let his frustrations get the best of him. That fire and passion might cause him to lose focus at times, but when he’s channeling it in the right way, he becomes practically unstoppable. The Raptors will need Lowry to play one of his best games of the series this afternoon to give the Raptors a chance of advancing to the second round for only the second time in team history.
Nets Player to Watch: Deron Williams
Joe Johnson has been a Raptor killer for the better part of this series, but the matchup to watch in this game is at the point guard position. Much like Lowry and the Raptors, Deron Williams has played far better in the three Nets wins than he has in the three losses:
D-Will may have fallen out of the “best point guard in the league” conversation in recent years, but there’s no denying that the Nets’ success is closely tied to his level of his performance. His scoring has been a key factor in this series, as he’s posted 24, 22, and 23 points in the three wins and 15, 10, and 13 in the three losses. If he makes the Raptors guards work hard to run out on him at the three-point line all game long, it could spell trouble for Toronto.
Raptors Key Lineup
The Raptors’ starting lineup has not been very efficient in this series, mostly due to the mediocre performance by second-year wingman Terrence Ross. Ross is averaging a mere 4.0 points per game on a brutal .257 shooting from the field and .190 from long range, but Coach Dwane Casey is still trying to get the young man going by starting him every game and giving him 21.2 minutes per contest.
The starting five of Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas has been one of the worst in the playoffs, posting a -21.3 net rating (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions) and an effective field goal percentage of .442 (that weights two- and three-point baskets) in 77 total minutes of action.
Compare that with the second most used lineup, where Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson come off the bench to spell Ross and Johnson. That lineup, in 29 minutes of action, has a much better net rating of 6.1, due to an increase in offensive rating from 95.1 to 121.1. The effective field goal percentage for that iteration also jumps significantly from .442 to .614.
With two point guards on the floor, the Raptors are able to break the strong defensive sets of the Nets more easily and the ball sticks less. The Vasquez/Patterson version of the lineup has an assist percentage of 56.5% compared to 46.9% for the starters. If Casey is willing to go to this lineup earlier and more often, it could give the Raps a better chance of pulling this one off.
Nets Key Lineup
To say these two teams have played an even series would be a bit of an understatement. Both have made big comebacks, blown fourth quarter leads, taken a game on the road, and had their success tied to their starting point guard. Another similarity? They’ve both had a lineup emerge that is slightly different from their regular starters that is far more effective.
For the Nets, the initial starting lineup of D-Will, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul PIerce, and Kevin Garnett has played together 55 minutes and posted a net rating of 9.4. That’s decent, no doubt, but nothing compared to how effective the same lineup has been when Livingston is swapped out for Alan Anderson. That lineup has had a staggering net rating of 49.1 in 26 minutes of action, while posting an effective field goal percentage of .605.
For all the knocks on Jason Kidd in his first year of coaching, he’s clearly aware of these kinds of statistical differences. Livingston has not necessarily been terrible, but Anderson’s three-point shooting (Livingston doesn’t shoot from long range at all) creates a lot more spacing on the floor for guys like D-Will, Joe Johnson, and Pierce to go to work. In a decisive Game 6 victory, Kidd trotted out the more effective version of the lineup as his new starting five and it clearly paid off. The question will be whether or not he sticks with it and if Casey makes a similar move on his end for Game 7.
Backcourt scoring has been a huge factor in this series, as the Raptors have led the postseason in starting guard points per game at 44.8 between Lowry and DeRozan. When they’ve been held in check, it has been the difference every time.
If the backcourts play evenly, look for Jonas Valanciunas to play a big role in the outcome. He’s a matchup nightmare for a Nets frontcourt that contains a 37-year-old Garnett and a few odds and ends that have yet to emerge as Kidd’s go-to bigs (not a single power forward or center is averaging 20 minutes per game in the series). If the big Lithuanian can stay out of foul trouble and clean the boards like he’s shown he can (14.0 per game over the first three contests), it could go a long way in spelling the end of the Nets’ multi-million-dollar season.
On the other hand, it's hard to count out Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the big stage of a Game 7, regardless of their respective ages. This afternoon, we'll see just how much success all that experience and money can buy.
numberFire algorithms: 64.2% odds the Raptors win.
My pick: Call me a Canadian homer, but I see the rambunctious crowd and the scrappy youth of the Raptors being too much for the Nets. I think the Raps are headed to South Beach!