Monday’s four-game slate featured some intriguing matchups across the league. In the second game of the day, the Brooklyn Nets kicked off their playoff run against the defending champion Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors and Nets have met in the first round on a few occasions since the turn of the century. In 2007, the New Jersey Nets took down Toronto in six games, led by Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and former Raptor Vince Carter.
Seven years later and playing in Brooklyn, the Nets faced off against Toronto again. A seven-game series was narrowly claimed by the Nets. With Kyle Lowry cutting to the rim for a game-winner, Paul Pierce stood tall and blocked the shot, sending Brooklyn to the next round.
The Nets and Raptors teams in 2020 are incomparable to those of previous decades. The only player remaining from the 2014 rosters is Kyle Lowry, who is now an NBA champion. The Raptors come off their first title-winning season, where Kawhi Leonard powered Toronto to the first Larry O’Brien trophy north of the border.
After Kawhi’s departure to L.A., young breakout stars like Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Fleet had fantastic seasons under head coach Nick Nurse.
For Brooklyn, a long rebuild ended with superstar signings last year. However, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant injured until next season and multiple key players contracting coronavirus, the Nets traveled to Florida with a much different team.
The bubble Nets surprised many despite the patchwork roster they took to Florida. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen were the few top players left on the Nets bubble roster, but great performances from bench players like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Chris Chiozza helped solidify a shaky Brooklyn team.
The back end of the bench was filled out with replacement players and veterans, as Jamal Crawford, Tyler Johnson, and Donta Hall filled in wearing black and white. With a fraction of their roster, the Nets were undoubtedly underdogs against the defending champions.
It was clear early that whoever had more energy on the court would lead the game. Toronto opened the game with a 10-2 run before Jaque Vaughn called time out. The Raptors were viscous in the first half, erupting from three-point range thriving by the basket.
With just under five minutes left in the first half, the Toronto lead was up to 33. Crafty passes opened up consistent open shots and Brooklyn’s offense struggled to match the Raptors’ offensive output. Van Fleet was automatic from deep and Serge Ibaka was unstoppable by the rim, with Brooklyn unable to make defensive stops.
In the third quarter, Toronto’s intensity faded, growing complacent on defense. Brooklyn pounced on the opportunity, reminding the Raptors and NBA that they’re a playoff team. Brooklyn’s energy saw them chop a seemingly insurmountable lead down to single digits going into the fourth quarter.
Surprised by the threat of blowing their lead and facing embarrassment in Game 1, Toronto brought their energy back to close out the game. Brooklyn’s sloppy play and Toronto’s limitless range returned in the final minutes. Backed by 50 percent shooting from deep and 97 percent from the free-throw line, Toronto went on to win, 134-110.
Despite the poor first half, Brooklyn showed that they’re capable of matching Toronto’s intensity and making this series much tighter than expected. It’s clear that the Nets have their work cut out for them.
The defense has to find an answer for the tireless Raptors offense and stars like Caris LeVert need to produce much more going forward.
Defeating Toronto is an almost impossible task, but with a big 2021 season ahead of them, this series is all about getting young players to get comfortable in their roles for the Nets.