Lewenberg: Raps look to squash playoff inexperience stigma

Josh Lewenberg
4/17/2014 9:31:01 PM
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TORONTO - Moments after the Raptors' storybook regular season came to an end, losing a meaningless game to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden Wednesday, Kyle Lowry addressed his teammates in the visitor's dressing room.

Turning the page, the focus immediately shifted to the challenge that lay ahead of them, their most arduous test yet and one many of them have only dreamt of, heard about or watched on television.

With the battle-tested Brooklyn Nets looming - their first playoff game set to tip-off early Saturday afternoon - the Raptors are leaning on their veterans, on Lowry, his experience and leadership.

What did he say to rally his troops ahead of the crucial preparation stage that precedes a postseason series?

"That's for me and my guys to know," he said, chatty as ever.

"Kyle came in here, he's been in the playoffs, and told us it starts [Thursday]," DeMar DeRozan clarified, offering a little more insight. "[Thursday] morning, as soon as we come to work it's going to start there - studying, understanding what they run, their tendencies."

As you've probably heard by now, the Raptors are a young, inexperienced team. They've heard about too, it's the narrative that drives this series.

Lowry and Amir Johnson account for all 24 games of playoff experience in the Raptors' starting lineup. Neither have been to the dance in five years, neither have ever started a postseason game. Meanwhile the Nets' starters have played in 399 postseason games. They have six players who have logged more than twice as many playoff minutes as any Raptor.

They'll be reminded of it over and over again for two weeks and then, should they advance to round two, it'll be revisited once again. They can't run from it, not until they prove it's a non-factor, but give them credit for the effort.

"I mean, it ain't like its rocket science or nothing," said DeRozan, asked about making his playoff debut on Saturday. "Everybody keeps talking to me like, bringing it up like its rocket science or I've got to know trigonometry or something. You just figure it out. You just go out there. I've been playing this game long enough, I've been in the league long enough, been in a lot of situations. So it shouldn't be hard."

He has a point. Playoff basketball is still basketball, after all. The game is the same; it's the stage that changes. The stakes that are higher and the room for error is narrowed. Some adjust to it better than others.

"Everything's at stake so you've just got to be ready for everything," the all-star guard acknowledged. "I think I've watched enough playoff basketball to see how physical it is and to see how things go. Even superstar players don't get calls out there. So I'm conscious of it. I'm not naive of anything. Now I'm in a position to go through it myself."

That heightened, more physically punishing brand of basketball has burned Raptors stars of the past. Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh all shot below 40 per cent in their first playoff series', with Carter barely breaking the 30 per cent barrier and scoring six points fewer than his average that season.

"It's a different level," said Dwane Casey, who will be making his playoff debut as a head coach after winning a title as an assistant in Dallas. "It's a different level in intensity, more physicality, less fouls called. You've got to play through it and that's one thing that they'll learn. The only way you can do that, though, is to go through it."

"I don't want to overhype it to scare our guys. It's still basketball but guys will see the difference, they'll feel that as soon as they walk on the court."

Along with DeRozan, sophomores Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, as well as fourth-year forward Patrick Patterson are among the team's rotation players who have yet to experience playoff basketball.

How big of a role does experience play in the postseason? Given the staggering discrepancy between the two teams, this series could solve that query as much or more than any other in recent memory.

There's no telling how Toronto's players might react to the adjustments they'll have to make, both in terms of their mental approach and on-court toughness, but they won't have the luxury of a grace period, not against the team they're up against. The Raptors can't afford to ease their way in, hosting games one and two at the Air Canada Centre - where they won 22 of their final 29 contests - before the series shifts to Brooklyn's Barclays Center, a building the Nets have dominated in since Jan. 1.

The most promising quality the Raptors' players displayed following Thursday afternoon's practice was fearlessness. They're not the least bit shaken by the Nets, their experience or the theory that they may have been at the top of Brooklyn's postseason wish list.

"I mean, we're all in the same league, man," DeRozan said. "Honestly, that's how I look at it, man. Credit to them, they did what they did but we play against guys who are experienced all season, honestly."

As DeRozan has pointed out, their young legs may also be beneficial against an older, slower club. Although they rank towards the bottom of the league in fast break points - just marginally ahead of the Nets - the Raptors have been able to get out and run against Brooklyn this season. However, the spaced out schedule - with their first four games spanning nine days - at least appears to favour the veteran Nets, who will get a chance to recharge their batteries following each contest, a concern Patterson expressed on Thursday.

Toronto's true advantage my lie in their size and strength up front, if they choose to utilize it. The Nets turned around their once disastrous season in part by featuring their small lineup, with two point guards in the backcourt and Paul Pierce at the four spot. Although closing out on Brooklyn's shooters and defending Pierce on the perimeter presents a challenge in and of itself, they were ranked second to last in rebounding and the Raptors bested them on the boards by 19 this year.

Kevin Garnett, who played in just two of the four meetings this season, is nearing his NBA swan song but is still a difference maker defensively and on the glass when he's on the court. The Raptors could force the issue by attacking the paint, putting pressure of Garnett and the Nets' frontcourt, void of a true shot blocking presence.

"We know who the match-ups are," Casey said. "We've just got to take it and dissect it and take advantage of the things we have an advantage in, which is our speed, athleticism and our energy. We've got to keep a fast tempo in the game."

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