Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the first-round matchup between the Raptors and Nets:
1. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Raptors?
James Herbert, TrueHoop Network: Their frighteningly fiery point guard. Kyle Lowry already gave Brooklyn a 31-point, 5-rebound, 7-assist, 5-steal game this season, and in the playoffs he'll be playing huge minutes. Finally on a national stage, he has a chance to show everyone how crazy it is that he wasn't chosen as an All-Star.
William Lou, Raptors Republic: The playoff-intensity version of Kyle Lowry is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Lowry is the catalyst behind the Raptors' superlative chemistry, and he's the point of attack on both ends of the floor. He leads the league in charges taken, he's deadly from deep, and he'll be the one with the ball in his hands when the Raptors need a bucket.
Mike Mazzeo, ESPNNewYork.com: Kyle Lowry. As one Eastern Conference scout told me, "Kyle has outplayed Deron Williams throughout the season. He's one of those really gritty, hungry players, almost to a fault, where people hate it if he doesn't play for their team." Lowry is quick and commands the attention of the entire defense. He could single-handedly eliminate the Nets.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop76: Kyle Lowry. The Raptors 2013-14 turnaround has largely been defined by what's absent from it. Sans Rudy Gay, Toronto transmogrified into a tightly efficient unit. But the rise of Lowry has truly galvanized the team this season. The Philadelphia native posted a nifty 17.9 PPG, 7.4 APG, 4.7 RPG line, finishing eighth in the association in win shares -- third among point guards -- and 12th in wins produced. He can play.
Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPNNewYork.com: The Raptors seem to have a little of everything -- speed, athleticism, size and shooting. They play hard and together. They're not supposed to be here, but they know it and are motivated -- which makes them dangerous despite their lack of experience.
2. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Nets?
Herbert: Their experience. The fact that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have done the whole playoff-underdog thing before would be scary for any opponent, but it's particularly problematic for Toronto. More than any team in the playoffs, the Raptors are new to this. Garnett won't hesitate to remind them of that. Loudly.
Lou: Paul Piece is going to be a matchup nightmare for the Raptors. If the Nets go small and play Pierce at PF, he'll have the quickness advantage over Amir Johnson, and his range has the added benefit of drawing Toronto's best defender out of the paint. If the Nets elect to go big and slot Pierce at SF, he'll have the size advantage over Terrence Ross. Pierce's versatility will give the Raptors fits.
Mazzeo: They are built for the playoffs. They have veterans. They have leadership. They have an identity. They have versatility. They have talent. They have depth. It's just a matter of staying healthy, sticking with what got them here (small ball and exploiting mismatches) and putting it all together.
Sunnergren: They're good -- really good. Brooklyn went 33-13 between the start of the New Year and April 8, after which it lost four out of five in an apparent attempt to get this precise playoff matchup. That's nearly a 59-win pace for the "long ball" lineup, which, if maintained over the course of the season, would have given the Nets the East's No. 1 seed by a three-game margin.
Youngmisuk: During their stunning turnaround, the Nets' chemistry kept building and building. They genuinely didn't seem to care who shouldered the scoring load each night, and they played terrific defense. And they are built for the postseason, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett bringing a combined 267 games of postseason experience. But the Nets also sometimes have a tendency to unravel defensively when they miss shots, and coach Jason Kidd has to figure out how to avoid these dangerous spells.
3. Who's the biggest X factor in this series?
Herbert: Amir Johnson's right ankle. Long one of the most underrated players in the league, Johnson means more to his team's success than some All-Stars. He is the Raptors' superstar in the advanced stat of real plus/minus. Johnson will play through anything, but his ailing ankle has limited his effectiveness in recent weeks. Toronto desperately needs Johnson to be close to his normal self now.
Lou: Raptors backup point guard Greivis Vasquez is a streaky player who can occasionally catch fire from beyond the arc. When the Raptors are starved for offense, coach Dwane Casey likes to slot in Vasquez alongside Lowry, which allows Kyle to roam off the ball to great success. Vasquez's weakness is on defense, where his lack of foot speed renders him a liability.
Mazzeo: The ability of Nets rookie coach Jason Kidd to make adjustments and tweaks during the series. How will he respond to the adjustments and tweaks the Raptors make? Will he be able to counter with the proper lineups? During the playoffs, we'll see just how much he's grown in his first year.
Sunnergren: Who gets hot from outside. Brooklyn and Toronto are two teams that -- even in a 3-centric era -- are unusually reliant on the triple. Since January, according to NBA.com, the Nets and Raptors are first and fourth in percentage of points that come from 3-point field goals. The team that hits more of them over the next couple of weeks will be the one that advances.
Youngmisuk: Deron Williams. The Raptors will have the advantage in youth, speed, athleticism and on the boards. The Nets will counter with their playoff experience, leadership and advantage in veteran stars. But the Nets might not survive if Kyle Lowry outplays Williams for the entire series. If Williams plays like an All-Star, the Nets should advance.
4. What's one BOLD prediction for this series?
Herbert: Andray Blatche will swing at least one game in Brooklyn's favor. Dating back to his Washington Wizards days, Blatche has always been a pain for the Raptors. This season, he had two 20-plus-point games against Toronto. He's not exactly the model of consistency, but when he starts hitting those turnaround jumpers, the reserve big man can be big trouble.
Lou: If the Nets take a lead in the series, look for Raptors coach Dwane Casey to make a change to the starting lineup, and slot John Salmons at small forward over Terrence Ross. Casey is an old-school coach who heavily favors the surety of veterans over the uncertainty posed by sophomores like Ross.
Mazzeo: Mason Plumlee, a lock for the NBA All-Rookie first team, supplants Andray Blatche on Brooklyn's depth chart and plays a huge part in the series. Blatche had a tremendous season, but Plumlee came on late. He understands his role and does it extremely well (shooting only inside the paint, coach's orders).
Sunnergren: Shaun Livingston will become a star. Everybody loves a comeback story. And in Livingston, America will get a fine one. Seven years after suffering one of the most grizzly knee injuries in memory, Livingston has emerged as a key contributor on a humming Nets team, finally making good on the promise that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft.
Youngmisuk: Jonas Valanciunas will average a double-double against the rebounding-challenged Nets.
5. Who wins this series and in how many games?
Herbert: Raptors in 7. Brooklyn will be far from an easy out, but Toronto is talented and tough enough to outlast the old guys. Having home-court advantage will help.
Lou: Raptors in 7. Home-court advantage is going to play a huge factor in what should be a closely contested series. Also, the series going the distance means rapper/hip-hop artist Drake will be in attendance for four games, which is a win for everyone, basketball-Twitter especially.
Mazzeo: Nets in 6.
Sunnergren: Brooklyn in 6. Lost in the (valid) brouhaha over the Nets' resurgence is this strange thing: Toronto might be better. The Raptors have gone 34-19 since Jan. 1, posting the league's sixth-best scoring differential in that period. But the playoffs are a different animal. The Nets have battle-tested veterans who have succeeded on this stage before and, at least in this series, look poised to do so again.
Youngmisuk: The Nets and Raptors split the season series 2-2, and three of the games were decided by a combined total of seven points. This has all the makings of a tightly contested series, and coaching could play a major role. But if the Nets stay healthy, Pierce, Garnett and Joe Johnson will get Brooklyn past Toronto in seven games.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Ohm Youngmisuk and Mike Mazzeo cover the NBA for ESPNNewYork.com. James Herbert, Tom Sunnergren and William Lou are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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