By Steve Lichtenstein
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Excuse me for being a bit obtuse, but doesn’t the logo of Toronto’s basketball team depict a dinosaur?
I guess that’s why it took me a few looks at the infamous Toronto Sun headline prior to Saturday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to get it. Raptors vs. Dinosaurs? Are they coming out with another sequel to Jurassic Park?
Obviously the newspaper and the entire city of Toronto were having some fun mocking the Nets’ relative advanced age, but it was (expletive) Brooklyn that showed the killer instinct in taking a 1-0 series lead with a 94-87 road victory.
So now the Raptors will play the role of the wounded animal as they make their adjustments for Tuesday’s Game 2. The Nets, on the other hand, have an opportunity to take another step towards putting them out of their misery.
Which was something they were unable to do last year, when the Nets followed up an opening-game blowout victory over the Bulls with a lackluster performance two days later. That altered the course of the series, which Chicago ended up winning in seven games.
Of course, there are quite a few distinct differences this time around. For one, the Nets started this postseason away from the Barclays Center. Also, they are playing a Raptors squad that lacks the Bulls’ playoff experience. And this Nets’ roster was built for this time of year.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were brought to Brooklyn last summer to teach the Nets how to win these games. In the deciding moments in the fourth quarter of a close game, both delivered on their preseason promises.
The 37-year old Garnett anchored a defense that held the high-scoring Raptors to fewer than 90 points for the first time this month while Pierce, the young buck of the duo at age 36, delivered nine clutch points in the closing three minutes.
The key for the Nets now is to not get sated with this early feast. There were too many times this season when the Nets took a step back after statement victories, often against the league’s weaklings.
It will help that the Nets have two days off before Game 2 instead of having to endure those back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-nights stretches that muck up the quality of the games.
But that alone won’t be enough. Expect the Raptors to get better throughout this series.
For instance, they seemed to learn late that guarding Nets small forward Joe Johnson with one lean defender in the post is not a good idea. Johnson scored 24 points, thanks mostly to his ridiculous ability to shield opponents with his back while still knocking down shots inside. Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas was a monster on the boards, but he was a too often a nonfactor in protecting the paint.
They also had to take notice that while Brooklyn point guard Shaun Livingston’s length bothered Raptors All Star DeMar DeRozan into a horrid 3-for-13 shooting day, Livingston did not have the requisite foot speed when matched up with Kyle Lowry or Greivis Vasquez. Livingston picked up three quick fouls in the second quarter during Deron Williams’ rest period.
Then there’s the matter of the Nets’ bench, which many analysts predicted would be a major factor in turning the series in Brooklyn’s favor. Those pundits must not have seen how the Nets closed the season.
The Raptors’ reserves outscored those of the Nets, 29-16 on Saturday. The Nets looked lost on offense and their pick-and-roll defense, whether it was Mason Plumlee or Andray Blatche in the middle, was leaky.
Yes, guys like Mirza Teletovic, Marcus Thornton and Blatche have the ability to go off for big games every now and then, but they haven’t really played all that well together recently. The pattern in Game 1 was: Nets’ starters grab lead; reserves give most of it back; Nets’ starters extend lead; Raptors make run against Nets’ backups to keep it close at crunch time; Nets’ starters out-execute Raptors to close game.
One of the reasons the leads wouldn’t stick was that Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t play his glue guy—forward Andrei Kirilenko. To Kirilenko’s wife’s dismay, Kidd made AK-47 his odd man out, opting to go with Teletovic and swingman Alan Anderson instead.
Now, it would be unfair to fault Kidd for his rotation in a game that he won, but you could see that the skills Kirilenko brings to every game—deflections, rebounds, passing, winning 50-50 balls—were absent whenever the starters took a breather.
With the more youthful Raptors able to extend minutes to their top guys and Kidd committed to giving as many minutes as he can to as many guys as he can, there are matchup risks that Toronto coach Dwane Casey can look to exploit.
I think Casey and the Raptors will have a better understanding going forward as to what they’re up against. They were Atlantic Division champs in the regular season for a reason. They know they can’t turn the ball over 19 times. You won’t find their general manager undertaking any more bush-league shenanigans like the profanity-laced motivational speech he gave to a throng of fans outside the arena before Game 1. And I don’t expect a repeat of Casey’s brain cramp in the final minute when he failed to have the Raptors immediately foul, thus allowing Brooklyn to run 12 precious seconds off the clock.
Which means that the Nets shouldn’t take their Game 1 win as anything more than that—they still have three more to go to make the Raptors extinct.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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