TORONTO (AP) The Toronto Raptors won the Atlantic Division and set a franchise record with 48 wins. They’ve still been labeled the weakest of the top four playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets may think so. Brooklyn dropped four of its last five games, with coach Jason Kidd resting his regulars in a 29-point loss to Cleveland on the final night of the season, as the Nets slid from fifth to sixth in the East, earning a first-round meeting with the Raptors and avoiding fourth-seeded Chicago.
”I like right where we are. A good place,” Kidd said after the seeding was confirmed.
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The Nets may be happy, but the third-seeded Raptors aren’t too pleased at the portrayal.
”It would tick me off if that was the case,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said Thursday when asked for his opinion on Brooklyn’s alleged strategy of tanking. ”If they did, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was also feisty, saying he and his team ”haven’t lost one second of sleep worrying about the Brooklyn Nets.”
”They can do whatever they want,” Ujiri said Thursday. ”We’ll be right here.”
Toronto (48-34) and Brooklyn (44-38) split four meetings during the regular season, with each team winning once on the opponent’s court.
Kidd insisted health, not seeding, was the motivation for his lineup choices late in the season, and Brooklyn forward Paul Pierce played down the topic of tanking and hurt feelings after the Nets practiced Friday.
”If we angered them or whatever, that’s for them to figure out,” Pierce said. ”Everybody’s going to try and use something for bulletin board motivation. To me, the motivation is a championship.”
Here are five things to watch in the series between the Nets and Raptors:
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?: Brooklyn has the overwhelming edge in playoff experience. Three Toronto starters (All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, second-year guard Terrence Ross and second-year center Jonas Valanciunas) have never played in the postseason. Pierce alone has started 136 playoff games, while the Raptors’ combined roster has played in 156. ”They’re a veteran team; they’ve seen it all,” Casey said of the Nets. ”They’ve seen every scheme and coverage you can throw at them. We’re going to have to mix it up.”
PUSH THE TEMPO: Brooklyn’s experience can also be a disadvantage. Pierce is 36, and Kevin Garnett is almost 38. Toronto’s oldest starter is 28-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry, while DeRozan is 24, Ross 23 and Valanciunas 21. Casey said his team’s biggest edge is in ”speed, athleticism and energy,” and DeRozan agreed. ”It’s hard to keep up chasing a guy like Terrence Ross off two, three screens,” he said. ”We’ve got to use our youth to our advantage.”
COACHING CONNECTION: Casey and Kidd, both making their playoff debuts as head coaches, have a championship history together from their days in Dallas. Casey was an assistant coach and Kidd the star point guard for the Mavericks team that upset Miami in the 2011 Finals. The two men remain friends. Casey said Friday that he wasn’t surprised to see Kidd reach the playoffs in his first season as an NBA coach, saying, ”Jason was always a step ahead of the curve.” Kidd was equally complimentary when asked about his former coach, the architect of Dallas’ formidable defense. ”He’s a great teacher,” Kidd said. ”He’s as good as they come, on and off the court.”
GOOD GUARDS: Casey calls Lowry the most important player on the Raptors’ roster, and he’s got a compelling matchup with Nets point guard Deron Williams. ”He’s our engine. He’s our spirit. He’s our toughness,” Casey said. ”He sets the tone for everything we do on both ends of the floor.” Lowry counts himself as a fan of Williams’ game. ”I like everything he does,” Lowry said. ”He can score. He can shoot, pass, handle. He’s creative.”
WE MEET AGAIN: This is a rematch, under strikingly similar circumstances, of a first-round series from the 2007 playoffs. That year, the sixth-seeded New Jersey Nets upset the third-seeded Raptors, surprise winners of the Atlantic Division, in six games, with Kidd averaging a triple-double for the Nets. Neither team has won a playoff series since, both losing in the first round in their lone appearance.