By Steve Lichtenstein
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Contrary to many popular opinions, the Nets did not tank the final week of the regular season to avoid a particular opponent in the playoffs.
No, there were too many variables outside of the Nets' control that affected the top eight slots in the Eastern Conference for Brooklyn to have any such master plan.
I guess that's what you get when you lose four of your last five games—all to teams with sub-.500 records — like the Nets just did.
Nets coach Jason Kidd treated those games like exhibitions, limiting the minutes of his regulars — if he bothered to have them suit up in the first place. In the Nets' 114-85 loss in Wednesday's finale at Cleveland, seven reserves saw action.
So instead of challenging for a home-court edge in the first round of the playoffs, Brooklyn went the other direction and dropped to sixth place in the East. The end result is a matchup with Toronto, who nudged Chicago out of the third seed.
The Raptors present different challenges than the Bulls, who outworked the Nets to win a seventh game at the Barclays Center in last season's conference quarterfinals. Though the Raptors generally lack postseason experience, if the Nets think they secured an easier opponent this time around, they will be quickly educated as to their mistake.
The Raptors may not have the Bulls' interior force nor will they try to muck up every game, but they are talented, deep and well-coached. The Nets' 34-17 spurt in calendar year 2014 has been widely touted, but you want to know what Toronto's record was in the same time frame? 34-19.
For the Nets to advance to the second round for the first time since 2007 (when, ironically, the sixth-seeded New Jersey Nets upset third-seeded Toronto), the following matters must be addressed:
1. Health & Readiness
Kidd's split-squad approach was ostensibly to rest his core and make sure that all injuries and boo-boos healed before Saturday's Game 1.
The Nets have a veteran group that was constructed to peak at this time of the season. Another way of putting it is that they are old and a bit brittle.
How will Kevin Garnett or Andrei Kirilenko hold up after a season where both key defensive cogs missed significant time with injuries? Heck, every time point guard Deron Williams hits the floor, Nets fans pray that his chronically-sore ankles come away without further damage.
All the regulars' time off could be beneficial, but it also poses a risk. Before their recent skid, the Nets were playing their best ball of the season, culminating with a thrilling one-point victory at Miami on April 8. Thanks to the organization's strategy, 11 days will have lapsed between meaningful games.
Now, if the Nets come out sharp in Game 1 on Saturday and steal it, this whole point will be moot. But it's not a stretch to believe that even such experienced players might not be able to reproduce the team's efficiencies on both ends right away after such a long layoff.
Unfortunately, there is no time to waste in a seven-game series.
2. Who Gets To Play?
Now that Kidd has all these healthy bodies, there is the matter of the rotation. There at least 12 guys to choose from. They can't all play every game.
I have no doubt that Kidd will continue to forgo the traditional power forward position in his starting lineup, meaning that Paul Pierce will match up with Toronto's Amir Johnson and be responsible for safeguarding the defensive glass, a problem area for the Nets all season.
Garnett's return to active duty at center will be helpful in this regard, but Kidd has indicated in the past that he will not extend KG's minutes beyond the 20-24 minutes he had been garnering all season (even though he averaged 35.3 minutes per game last season for the Celtics in their six-game first-round loss to the Knicks).
So who gets to play backup? Mason Plumlee has made great strides this season, but will Kidd trust a rookie in these spots and would enigmatic Andray Blatche be a better fit on the second unit that could use his scoring?
It will also be interesting to see how Kidd manages his other reserves—players like Kirilenko, Mirza Teletovic, Alan Anderson, Marcus Thornton have all been used to regular chunks of playing time. These guys have saved many a game this season. Other nights, however, like those when Teletovic and Thornton bomb away with poor results, have been calls for help.
Which leads to….
3. How Long Will They Go?
In the regular season, Kidd would often give his starters extended rest periods during games. Joe Johnson led the Nets with 32.6 minutes per game. Williams was the only other Net averaging over 30 minutes per game (other than Brook Lopez, who was injured and lost for the season in December).
While the players appreciate Kidd's trust, it often created a great deal of anxiety among fans who witnessed big leads quickly dissolve until Kidd turned over the lineup.
Combine that with Kidd's seeming fear of using timeouts before the fourth quarter and you have a disaster-in-waiting. It shouldn't be anything like last year's Game 4 in Chicago, but then again, nothing should.
Still, basketball is a game of runs, and all it takes is one two-or-three minute stretch where the wrong players are on the floor at the wrong time to alter a game's outcome. And one game is all it takes to swing a series.
4. How Will They Defend?
The biggest reason why the Raptors are a more dangerous opponent than the Bulls is that they can score. In bunches. They finished second in offensive efficiency per 100 possessions in the East behind Miami.
They can go inside and out, with point guard Kyle Lowry capable of beating teams off the dribble or from long-range. Johnson and center Jonas Valanciunas have greatly improved their moves in the post while DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are capable of going off for high-scoring games from the perimeter.
Even the Raptors' bench, led by Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Patrick Patterson, can create scoring opportunities for themselves and others.
The Nets' turnaround came about courtesy of the above-mentioned change in their configuration, which allows Brooklyn to switch on most pick-and-rolls. However, because the Nets lack overall quickness and team speed, they have been vulnerable to the three-point shot (especially from the corners) and points in transition.
The Raptors also take pretty good care of the ball, committing the eighth fewest turnovers in the league this season. The Nets, who made a good living for a while feeding off opponents' miscues, will have their hands full corralling Lowry. Shaun Livingston's size was often used in prior meetings to give Williams a break, but he does not have the requisite foot speed to keep Lowry out of the paint.
The Nets have to make the Raptors walk it up, use their length to deflect passes, contest three-point shooters, and control the defensive glass.
That's a lot to ask. Fortunately, I believe they can do a better job of…
5. Defending Home Court
The Barclays Center has the potential to give the Nets a home-court edge for the first time since—well—the birth of the franchise in 1967. The Nets won a team-record 15 consecutive home games between February 3 and last Friday's loss to Atlanta.
I don't expect a sea of Raptors jerseys at the Barclays Center for next Friday's Game 3, nothing like the way Bulls' red was so visible last year.
The Nets split their four home games with Chicago last year. The way the Nets have been playing at home now, particularly with how comfortable they have been with their three-point shooting in the building, I wouldn't be surprised if they swept the three games at Barclays Center.
And I also think that, despite all the troubles they've had on the road this season, they can win a game in Toronto.
The long slog through the regular season is over. The Nets are in the tournament—this is their opportunity to erase all the doubts that arose from past inconsistencies. There are no back-to-backs or fourth-game-in-fifth-nights to throw away.
They have the talent to compete with any team in the East. I believe they will get past this first hurdle—with difficulty.
Nets in six.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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