By Matt Constas
How the Raptors Got Here:
To sum it up as quick as possible, they traded away their best player and everybody got better. Rudy Gay was traded after the Raptors had played 18 games of their season. They were 6-12 and they made an interesting move. Now at 48-34, they are the winners of the Atlantic Division and hold the three spot in the upcoming NBA playoffs for the Eastern Conference.
Raptors’ Player to Watch: Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry has been the quarterback of this Raptors team all year long. After averaging just 13.3 points and 6.3 assists per game on 40 percent shooting the first month with Gay, Lowry finished the season with career-highs in points (17.9), assists (7.4) and three-point percentage (38 percent). He is the leader of a team that continues to improve every time they take the floor.
How the Nets Got Here:
The Nets revamped their roster in the offseason. They traded for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. They signed Andrei Kirilenko and brought in Shaun Livingston to create a team to contend in the Eastern Conference and many believed they would. But, the quest didn’t start off well. They started 10-21, they lost their star center Brook Lopez 22 games into the season, and many were beginning to question their head coach, Jason Kidd, and his ability to lead this team. Boy, did everybody turn out wrong. With a smaller lineup, the Nets went on a 34-15 tear leading up to the final two games of the season to put them in fifth spot in the Eastern Conference. They then lost their last two games, dropping them into the sixth seed in the East. An interesting move, which may or may not have been intentional so they could avoid the Chicago Bulls and potentially face the Miami Heat in the second round, who they beat four times this year.
Nets’ Player to Watch: Joe Johnson
I think Joe Johnson is the best player on this team. For a smaller roster, Johnson is a big guy for his position. He will guard an opposing team’s best player and will be the guy you give the ball when you need to make a clutch shot. He scores almost 16 points per game, shoots 40 percent from three, grabs 3.4 rebounds and only turns the ball over one time per game. He is a key to their success and somebody they can rely on in almost any scenario they face.
Why the Raptors Will Win:
They will be assertive in the paint. They need to attack and attack and win the battle on the glass. The Raptors out rebounded the Nets in both wins against them this season, but in both losses they were out rebounded. This team will have to take care of the ball because extra possession will be key. The Nets like to force turnovers, but they are a smaller team. If they take care of the ball, get defensive rebounds and get on the offensive glass they can create extra possessions for themselves, not their opponent.
Why the Nets Will Win:
They have the experience. They have players who have been in the playoffs most of their career–intelligent veterans who have won championships and gold medals. They know the stage better, but it will be tough for them to swing home court advantage in their favor because they’ve struggled on the road. The three-point battle will be key and if the Nets can get guys like Pierce, Johnson, Mirza Teletovic and Marcus Thornton going from beyond the arc, they will be tough to close out down the stretch of games and in a seven game series.