The dust has settled. The tears have (hopefully) dried. After a magical season which saw a franchise mark in wins and just the second division title in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors fell to the Brooklyn Nets in a captivating seven-game quarter final. Sorry for bringing it up again. Yes, this was not what any of us expected, and yes, it will probably go down as another disappointment in the team’s shameful history. But despite all the questions and regrets held by both the organization and its fans, this series will undoubtedly serve as a stepping stone for seasons to come. Unlike their aging opponents, the Raptors are a young squad with a bright future and all the tools to become a perennial contender.
This year’s NBA first round was historically competitive across the board, and the Toronto-Brooklyn series was no exception. The average margin of victory was 5.86, with six out of seven games decided by single digits. While the pain of a devastating 103-104 loss in Game Seven was evident in the faces of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, there is no question that this series will shape their individual play and immensely benefit the Raptors’ performance down the road. Some might say that the Nets came out on top due to their deep playoff experience, and they’re probably right. Now that the Raps have experience of their own to boast, let’s break down the series takeaways and lessons learned.
In our series preview, I stated, “As long as Toronto can compete with Brooklyn as they did in the regular season and ignore their label as “inexperienced”, they have a legitimate shot at taking down the Nets.” Looking back on things, the team did just that. Although DeRozan succumbed to nerves in Game One, Toronto generally found its composure and was able to compete with the old guys for the most part. Unfortunately, Brooklyn’s postseason familiarity proved to be highly beneficial for the opposing side. Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson were offensively commanding in each of the Nets’ victories. After shaking off a poor start to the series, veteran guard Deron Williams took the reins and willed his team to consecutive wins in Games Six and Seven with reliable scoring. And although Kevin Garnett didn’t have the colossal game takeover that I anticipated, his signature demeanor and defensive prowess likely had an impact on his team’s performance. Playoff experience is a critical component in winning a series, and it definitely gave Brooklyn an edge in this one.
When addressing breakdowns, two games come to mind: Game Five and Game Six. In Game Five, the Raptors came out to a dominant start on both ends of the floor, and held an impressive 26 point lead during the third quarter. In the final frame, however, the team completely fell apart and allowed Brooklyn to come back and tie the game in the last few minutes (thanks to Johnson’s incredible scoring burst). The Raps were unable to produce anything at all offensively, and their defensive effort became non-existent. The Nets were scoring at will and Toronto just didn’t seem to care. The Raptors barely squeaked by with a 115-113 win, and the shift in momentum was a cause for concern. In the following game, the near-opposite occurred, as Brooklyn continued its stellar play and led by as many as 26. Toronto could not emulate its opponent’s comeback performance in the previous game, and lost 83-97. The takeaway from these two contests is the lack of consistency. In the second half of Game Five, after an excellent start to the game, the Raptors provided a weak defensive presence in the paint and did a poor job of contesting the outside shot. In the regular season, the team had a frustrating habit of sluggish starts and eventual shortfalls, and this resurfaced in Game Six. These consecutive collapses were a connected turning point in the series, and they gave Brooklyn all the confidence they needed to win Game Seven in Toronto.
Johnson came up huge for Brooklyn. His scoring output for all seven games is listed: 24, 18, 29, 7, 32, 17 and 26. Going into the series, the main focus was on Pierce, and Johnson may have slightly slipped under the radar for Toronto. He proved to be a major offensive threat, making several clutch shots down the stretch (particularly in Game Five) and facilitating runs. The Nets should credit Johnson with contributing to every winning effort and taking on the burden of scoring when the rest of the team could not. The Raptors learned that his All-Star status was not simply handed out. He justified his role as a capable star who can be a tough task for young teams to guard.
Who The North?
Above is Sid Seixeiro‘s desperate plea for Toronto fans to unite and create a hellish atmosphere indicative of the city’s love for basketball. To say he got what he wanted would be an understatement. From the opening tip of Game One to the final buzzer of Game Seven, Raptors fans were persistently loud and passionate both inside the ACC and outside in “Jurassic Park.” We didn’t just make our presence known. We established a reputation as the most loyal and supportive fans in the NBA. From this point on, the buzzing atmosphere must be a Toronto trademark. It serves as tangible motivation for the home team, and more importantly, an intimidation factor for opponents. As proof, here’s a post-series quote from Garnett:
“This has got to be one of the best places and best atmospheres I’ve played in in a long time. Paul and I were talking … about different places we’ve played and the passion, but this place was rocking, man. D-Will (Deron Williams) was shooting free throws (in the final minute) and our ears were ringing. Big shout to the Toronto Raptors, their fans and their city.”
“We The North” will remain as the team’s motto for upcoming seasons. It was implemented well and has instantly become a brand across Toronto. The words carry on, but the postseason energy they sparked cannot die- Raptors fans have an ongoing responsibility to maintain their reputation.
The Case for Casey
Pitbull Jason Kidd did not exactly “out-coach” Dwane Casey. Both men demonstrated smart schemes and occasional lapses. It was a fairly even match up. Although his team emerged victorious in the end, Kidd made a few questionable calls throughout the series. For example, he sat out Pierce and Garnett for the entire fourth quarter of Game Five and the Nets inevitably came up short. Perhaps their participation would have bolstered the team’s comeback effort. Casey was also not immune to failure, as his squad went flat on defense in Game Five and did little to stop their opponent’s resurgence. Here’s the takeaway for Toronto’s coach: deliver on your defensive promises. Since Casey was hired back in 2011, his defense-first mentality has only recently materialized on-court. The massive collapses in this series can no longer be tolerated. After signing a three-year extension on May 6, Casey looks to be around for the long haul. It’s up to him to learn from this series and further develop his defensive stamp.
Side Note: Along with their striking resemblance, Kidd and fake rapper Pitbull share another common trait: I hate them both.
Leader of the North
I’ll make this short because you’ve probably heard enough praise about this guy:
Kyle Lowry…you are the best.
The tough guard stepped up every game of the series, scoring in volumes and delivering the ball as well as Andrea Bargnani delivers disappointment. His unsuccessful shot in the closing seconds of Game Seven was impossible to denounce, as he has well-earned the trust of his teammates and every Raptor fan. He is the undisputed leader of the Raptors and his performance over the past seven games instilled my confidence in this team’s future. Lowry’s probable contract extension with Toronto entails his current level of play. If he can maintain directorship of the Raps and continue the harmony between himself and DeRozan, this team will only improve.
This series was memorable to say the least. It was filled with heated matchups, aggressive displays of support, periods of intense anxiety and renewed faith in Toronto basketball. The Raptors have a lot to take away from these past few weeks, and an entire offseason to put these lessons into practice. As a whole, the 2013-2014 campaign felt surreal. For possibly the first time ever, I legitimately feel assured that this team will address its flaws and have a successful future.