Hands up, all of you who predicted a mid-March match in Brooklyn would be the season’s most important…hmm, that would be…no one, including Yours Truly. But here we are, with the Toronto Raptors holding the hammer over the Brooklyn Nets. A Toronto win would see the Raps 10 games above .500, the Nets back to that level, and the Atlantic Division title within shouting distance. If Brooklyn wins, their confidence soars, and we’ve got a dogfight. The Raps would also have to worry about the unkillable Chicago Bulls stealing our home-court advantage in the playoffs. Did I mention we’d play the Nets if the playoffs started tomorrow? In short, this is a Big Game.
The Nets and Raps both started the season poorly, but Brooklyn has taken longer to find itself. At one point they were 10-21, but, as befits a team of proud veterans, they didn’t fold. Like most older teams, they have suffered injury troubles; Brook Lopez, a behemoth centre, is out with a broken foot, while ageless Kevin Garnett and smooth Andrei Kirilenko are questionable. Their lineup remains a solid one, with Raps-level quality on the second unit.
The Raps won’t need to worry about getting into a shootout; Brooklyn doesn’t have gunners beyond Joe Johnson. They win with tough defense and balanced scoring. Paul Pierce, the veteran’s veteran, knows when it’s Q4 (although he’s questionable due to a sore shoulder). Shaun Livingston at shooting guard is long and will mix it up with DeMar DeRozan. Deron Williams on point seems over his mid-season slump, though he’ll never be a star again. At centre, Mason Plumlee looks like a player to me, but his poor rebounding numbers are difficult to understand.
Brooklyn’s bench features versatile Alan Anderson, whom many of us would like to have back, Andray Blatche, a solid paint presence when he’s in the mood, and newcomer Marcus Thornton, who will bomb away.
The Raps memorably defeated the Nets in Brooklyn in late January on a late steal of an in-bounds pass, and subsequent bucket. Can they spoil the party once again? Yes, if they:
- crash the boards. The Nets’ rebounding numbers are very bad, and won’t get better with Reggie Evans in Sac-to as part of the Thornton trade. Jason Collins was brought in to help them, but he can’t score, so will only hit the floor for brief periods.
- play slowly. If the Raps get up in the Nets’ faces on defense, pressure the ball, and force them to take contested shots late in the clock, the odds of them missing (and our guys getting the rebound) increase dramatically. One & done, boys.
- get the ball inside on offense. Jonas Valanciunas won’t have on him the quality defenders he’s had to deal with recently. If JV can hit his hook shots and short jumpers, the Nets will have to collapse. At that stage, JV can dish to a cutting Amir Johnson, or find Terrence Ross for an open corner 3-ball.
Two of the three Brooklyn-Toronto games this season have gone down to the last second. I’m thinking this one is likely to as well. Let’s take the Raps by 102-100. [20-second timeout: I nearly nailed last night's Minny final score, missing it by a back-iron Kevin Love 3-ball. I said Raps 111-107; it ended 111-104.]