The Toronto Raptors lost the reigning Finals MVP, but they’ve retained their championship DNA. Behind a core of seven returnees from last year’s title squad, the Raptors have become an elite defensive team, won more than 50 games for the fifth straight season, and earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their defense begins with a first-round series against a shorthanded division rival.
The Brooklyn Nets are not only missing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who were both out for the season when it was suspended in March. They also went to Orlando without Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince. But, behind a surprisingly potent offense, they went 5-3 in the seeding games, beating the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers along the way, to hold off the Orlando Magic for the No. 7 seed.
The Nets are a wild card. Not only do they have five players added just for the resumption of the season, Jacque Vaughn has been their coach for only 10 games. That, along with the randomness of results in the restart, should add some intrigue to what is, otherwise, one of the most easy-to-predict first round series.
Three things to watch
1. How did the Raptors improve this season? The Raptors lost two starters, really didn’t replace either of them, and finished with a better winning percentage than last year’s squad. Pascal Siakam picked up some of the offensive slack and became an All-Star, seeing one of the league’s biggest jumps in usage rate. Norman Powell made the most of a big jump in playing time, and OG Anunoby, after missing all of the 2019 playoffs, returned as an improved shooter and All-Defensive Team candidate. He’s not the only candidate in the starting lineup and after ranking fifth defensively last season, the Raptors were one of the most improved defensive teams this season. That’s where their championship DNA and core-group cohesiveness shows up most, as no team is on string more than the Raptors when they’re in rotation.
2. Can the Nets keep the Raptors out of transition? According to Synergy play-type tracking, Toronto ranks third in transition efficiency (1.15 points per possession), but just 18th in half-court efficiency (0.96). If Brooklyn is going to have a chance, it will need to limit turnovers, get back on defense and force the champs to work in the half-court. The 24.3 fast break points the Raptors averaged in the four regular-season meetings was their sixth-highest mark among their opponents and they’re 22-3 (as of Friday) when they’ve recorded 20 fast break points or more. If the Raptors are running, the Nets are in trouble.
3. Have Fred VanVleet and Chris Chiozza ever been seen together in the same room? This will be a fun series for people who live vicariously through diminutive NBA guards. Both the 6-foot-1 VanVleet and the 5-foot-11 Chiozza went undrafted and both have spent time in the NBA G League. VanVleet made a lot of huge shots as the Raptors’ 2019 title run. He’s seen big jumps in his per-game numbers this season and is one of the NBA’s most disruptive defenders. The more heavily tattooed Chiozza is on a two-way contract with the Nets and broke into the rotation in March. He’s been a key contributor in some late-season wins and has provided some highlights with his ball-handling. He didn’t play in Brooklyn’s two games against the Raptors after he was signed in January, so the two small guards have never met on the floor.
The number to know
39-1 — That’s Toronto’s record when it has scored at least 109 points per 100 possessions this season, with the only loss coming March 1 in Denver, when it was missing both of its centers (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka) against Nikola Jokic. The Raptors’ defense has been so consistently good that the champs have just had to be about average offensively (the league average this season is 110.1 points per 100 possessions) to almost guarantee a win. When they lost in Brooklyn on Feb. 12, the Raptors scored just 91 points on 98 possessions, shooting 38% and attempting just 13 free throws.
— John Schuhmann
There’s obviously more intrigue in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5 series in the East, and things will really get interesting when we get to the conference semifinals. The Raptors have an experienced, cohesive group that knows how to take care of business: they went 37-4 against the 13 teams that finished the season with losing records. One of those losses was to Brooklyn as it ended the champs’ 15-game win streak in the last game before the All-Star break. Toronto’s offense struggled in that one, and continued issues there (the Raptors ranked 21st offensively in the seeding games) could keep the door ajar from night to night in this series. The Raptors will allow a high volume of attempts from 3-point range, and if the Nets catch fire from deep, they could certainly take a game or two. Raptors in 5.
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