- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN Staff Writer
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Let’s take a look at the matchups to figure it out:
POINT GUARD: Believe it or not, the Nets are a much better team when Deron Williams is on the court -- both offensively and defensively.
Just look at this efficiency breakdown:
On-court offensive/defensive rating: 108.3/103.1
Off-court offensive/defensive rating: 100.0/106.9
Williams’ stats, however, don't exactly jump out at you. He dealt with ankle injuries up until the All-Star break for the second consecutive season.
Bottom line: It’s time for the 29-year-old to step up and play like an All-Star. After all, the Nets are only going to go as far as their $98 million man takes them. The inbound pass he threw against Toronto that was intercepted by Patrick Patterson and led to Patterson’s game-winning basket on Jan. 27? Can’t happen.
Kyle Lowry, at one point, it seemed, was headed to New York or Brooklyn. Can you imagine if the Raptors traded him? Lowry was among the best floor general in the Eastern Conference this season and averaged 25.6 points on 48.3 percent shooting over the last five games of the regular season. Lowry, an adept marksman from 3-point territory, commands the attention of an opponent’s entire defense. He’s that good.
SHOOTING GUARD: One of the biggest reasons for Brooklyn’s 2014 turnaround was the inclusion of Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup. Livingston complements Williams well. On many nights, he’s asked to guard the opposition’s best wing player. Also an adept scorer in the post because of his size, Livingston has been his team’s unsung hero all season. He’s one of those rare players who doesn't need the ball to have an effect on the game. Who knows where the Nets would be without him.
DeMar DeRozan was Toronto’s lone All-Star. He’s young, talented, athletic and can score. DeRozan averaged a team-high 22.7 points per game in 38.2 minutes, but he needed 17.8 shots a night to get there. DeRozan has been criticized a lot, but the Raptors are going to need a big series from him if they're going to advance.
SMALL FORWARD: Joe Johnson was Brooklyn’s lone All-Star. He was extremely consistent and shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range -- the second-highest mark in his career. Over the past 18 games of the regular season, Johnson averaged 18.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting. Known for his prowess in the clutch, the 32-year-old hit two game-winning buzzer-beaters. Johnson sacrificed shots for the betterment of the team, and his willingness to do so from the beginning was impressive.
Terrence Ross got an opportunity to start because of the Rudy Gay deal. He’s certainly flourished. Arguably one of the best dunkers in the NBA, Ross averaged 10.9 points, highlighted by a 51-point game in late January. Ross said he preferred to face the Nets in the first round. Now is his chance to show why.
POWER FORWARD: Livingston’s insertion into the starting lineup coincided with Paul Pierce moving to power forward. It worked brilliantly. Pierce has adjusted to his new role like a future Hall of Famer should. He ranks second on the team in defensive rating -- despite giving up 50 to 60 pounds to most bigs he has to guard -- and is shooting 47.7 percent from the field since Jan. 1. Pierce had a difficult time making the transition from Boston to Brooklyn at first, but he has since moved on and made a significant impact -- especially as a leader.
Amir Johnson is a solid veteran who understands his role and does it well. He shot 56.2 percent from the field during the regular season and averaged 10.5 points.
CENTER: Kevin Garnett hates playing center, in case you didn’t know. Problem is, he’s really good at it. After getting off to a slow start like his buddy Pierce, Garnett turned his season around. He’s the team’s quarterback on defense. His on-court defensive rating is a team-best 100.5. When he’s not on the court, the team’s defensive rating drops to 106.6. Since Jan. 1, Garnett is shooting 55.6 percent from the field. The key for him is his health. The 37-year-old missed 19 games recently because of back spasms. Luckily, there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, so he'll have plenty of rest. Garnett’s leadership is so valuable, as is his postseason experience.
Jonas Valanciunas, 21, has a bright future ahead of him. He averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds and shot 53.1 percent from the field. He’s a handful to deal with inside.
BENCH: Brooklyn’s bench is one of its biggest strengths. The Nets led the Eastern Conference in bench scoring this season. Andray Blatche and trade-acquisition Marcus Thornton both averaged in double figures. Mirza Teletovic is an excellent floor spacer. Andrei Kirilenko, now healthy, is a versatile piece who always seems to have his hands on the ball. Mason Plumlee is a strong candidate to make the All-Rookie first team, while Jorge Gutierrez looks as though he may get some playoff minutes.
Toronto certainly gets a lot of use out of its reserves, as well. Greivis Vasquez has been an excellent pickup. He leads the Raptors in defensive rating (98.2). Patterson and veteran John Salmons also get a lot of run off the pine. Tyler Hansbrough is an intense big body, while Nets fans are certainly familiar with 3-point specialist Steve Novak.
COACH: Early on, it looked as though rookie head coach Jason Kidd was overwhelmed. But the two-time Eastern Conference Coach of the Month has done a great job instilling confidence in his players. When Kidd decided the Nets should go small, their season took off.
Dwane Casey has done a remarkable job in the final year of his contract, and he is a strong candidate for coach of the year honors after guiding the Raptors to a surprising Atlantic Division title.
PREDICTION: The Nets may have wanted to play the Raptors in Round 1, but Toronto is going to be a tough matchup for Brooklyn. The Raptors can shoot the 3-pointer and all their players seem to have great chemistry playing with one another. Remember: Three of the four regular-season matchups between the two teams were decided by four or fewer points. Still, the Nets have the edge in playoff experience, which gives them an edge, assuming they can stay healthy. Winning Game 1 at Air Canada Centre and stealing away home-court advantage would be huge for a Brooklyn team that has won 16 of its last 18 games at Barclays Center.
NETS IN 6
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann