Raptors-Nets Opening Round Highlights Experience Gap

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All eyes were on the Eastern Conference’s most curious opening round—the first playoffs game between the Toronto Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday—thanks largely in part to the massive discrepancy in playoffs experience between the two teams.

 

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America


In fact, Brooklyn’s entire starting rotation had roughly 10.4 times the playoff minutes of Toronto’s, as noted by Eric Koreen of the National Post. As for their veterans, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Andrei Kirilenko (who sat out that afternoon), Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had 417 playoff starts between them.

On the other hand, Toronto’s starters had none. Amir Johnson had played just under a dozen postseason games around five years ago as a backup. Kyle Lowry played 13. Before the game, the Raptors point guard said that the difference would be felt.

“At the end of the day, they might have a little bit more experience than we [do]—they got shots and the physicality—but we gotta start somewhere,” said Lowry. “We got two sophomores starting the game, and it’s a great start for them in their sophomore season to get an atmosphere like this and get the opportunity to play against a team like this.”

In the opposite dressing room, big man Jason Collins of the Nets acknowledged the discrepancy in playoff experience between the two teams as well.

“I went to the finals my rookie year,” said Collins. “This is my 10th time to the playoffs, so a lot of playoffs experience.” That’s coming from a Nets player who also sat out that afternoon.

Executives can be playoffs rookies, too
The lack of playoffs experience was also evident at the Raptors’ executive level. GM Masai Ujiri, who took the reigns back in May 2013, received backlash over social media for a pre-game speech he made to Toronto fans filling Maple Leaf Square. In an apparent attempt to fire up the crowd excited by the Raptors’ first playoffs berth in six years, he concluded his part with a resounding “F*** Brooklyn!” which was repeated moments later by centre Amir Johnson.

Going into the game, it was no secret that despite the Raptors’ third-seed position, Brooklyn’s experience and skill level would outmatch Toronto’s. The fans certainly understood how daunting a task toppling the Nets would be, and so did Toronto’s players. Perhaps the profane outbursts were less a sign of insolence, and more a sign of acknowledging the team’s fear. We’ll win! We hope. Please?

Despite the uproar, the Nets barely acknowledged the remark. Visiting coach Jason Kidd pointedly avoided making a direct comment about the pre-game boast during the postgame media conference.

“You got to tell me who the GM is. I don’t know who that is, so I could care less what they think about Brooklyn,” said Kidd. “We have a job to do and that is to play the game of basketball.”

Ujiri later apologized for the offence, but not for the sentiment. Prior to his gameday comments, he had repeated that he wants Toronto to be “hell on Earth” for the Nets.

According to the Toronto Sun, Ujiri may now face a possible fine for his F-bomb. [Update: Ujiri has been fined $25,000 by the NBA, reports the Toronto Star]. There are better ways to call out an opponent, and one way is by winning a series.

Raptors can still step it up
The largely playoffs-inexperienced Toronto team now know what they’re up against, and they’re chalking up the opening round to the learning curve. After the game, Raptors Coach Dwane Casey reacted to the loss with pragmatism.

“Believe me, this is nowhere near disappointing. If our fans are disappointed, they’re not true fans, they’re come-lately fans, because this young team won a division, we’re third in the conference,” said Casey. “It’s one game, the series is not over.” Casey identified Toronto’s 19 turnovers to Brooklyn as the biggest issue of the night for his team.

With playoff jitters in full force, it’s easy to see how some early foul trouble shook the resolve of some Toronto players not used to the pressure. After two fouls in the first quarter, Toronto’s Terrence Ross would score only three points the entire game and have little overall impact on the proceedings. He’d finish with four total fouls, and less than half the floor time of his Nets counterpart, small forward Joe Johnson.

DeMar DeRozan was facing a bit of struggle after netting two early-game fouls of his own. He would miss all four of his three-point attempts before the final buzzer, and went three for 13 from the field. This comes after shrugging off the magnitude of the playoffs in the preceding days (the words “it’s not rocket science” come to mind).

Now humbled, the Raptors seem to understand the importance of staying focused. In a later interview with the Toronto Sun, DeRozan said that he had learned his lesson and will be looking out for opportunities to be more aggressive. If DeRozan’s renewed motivation is indicative of the rest of the team, the Raptors might have a fighting chance now that they’ve gotten some dirt under their fingernails. They’ll need it—a Game 2 loss could spell a spiritual demise for the franchise despite a four-game guarantee. 

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