Nets confident they can beat division-winning Raptors
When things finally settled and the Nets' playoff landscape became crystal clear, the reflection started.
They flashed back to their four regular-season outings, pondering a few missed opportunities against the spry, youthfully exuberant Raptors. And now the sixth-seeded Nets seem confident they can get past the third-seeded Atlantic Division champions in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series that tips off at Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
They split the four-game season series, and three contests were tight. The Nets lost by 16 points on Jan. 11 just hours after a big win over the Heat, but the others were decided by four or fewer points.
There was that Jan. 27 head-scratcher in which Deron Williams threw an ill-advised inbounds pass in the waning seconds, a gaffe that led to the Raptors stealing a one-point win.
So with that in mind, it's not hard to see why the Nets aren't trembling at the prospect of taking on Toronto.
"I think we should be 3-1 this season [against them]," Andrei Kirilenko said after Wednesday's regular-season finale in Cleveland, "because one game we lost, remember at the end of the game, when we lost the ball and they stole it at halfcourt and made it at the buzzer instead of us just getting it in and finishing the game.
"Toronto, give them huge credit. I wouldn't say their style of the game reminds me of somebody in the league. They have a very unique style of the game, but they are very organized at the same time."
Quick, athletic backcourts have given the Nets problems all season, and the Raptors' talented tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan might be at the very top of that list.
Lowry terrorized the Nets, averaging 22.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds. DeRozan, who didn't play in one of the games, averaged 22.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists against the Nets.
Throw in high flyer Terrence Ross, burly Amir Johnson and the size of 6-11, 231-pound center Jonas Valanciunas, and the Raptors have several pieces that can give the Nets serious fits.
"Kyle Lowry is really having a great season, along with DeRozan," Kirilenko said. "Terrence Ross is really a great support for them and the big guys like Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, they are on the same page. So it's going to be very important to kind of force them out and don't let them get those second shots."
There are those on the outside who remain convinced that the Nets deliberately took their foot off the accelerator this past week, dropping four of their last five on purpose to match them against the Raptors rather than the Bulls, who eliminated them last season.
ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy is among them, suggesting yesterday that the Nets "tanked to try to get to Toronto, OK?"
He added: "The Nets from Jan. 1 until they started resting guys down the stretch and trying to get the matchup they wanted, they were playing as well as anyone. And so it's certainly going to be difficult, but I like the Raptors a lot. I think they've had a remarkable season led by a remarkable coach, and I think they've got a great shot at advancing to the second round."
Andray Blatche surely has different ideas, and although a lot of the focus will center on the Raptors' talented and speedy backcourt, he believes people still shouldn't get it twisted and forget about the Nets' starting tandem.
"It's going to be just as tough for them to stop Deron Williams and Joe Johnson," Blatche said. "It's not just two guys. Playoffs is when you've got your best defense. We are going to know all their plays to where it's like our plays. We know what every player is going to do, if he's righthanded, wants to come back with it, everything. So we are going to be well-prepared."