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Lewenberg: Raptors draw Nets in opening round of playoffs

Josh Lewenberg

4/17/2014 3:33:43 PM

NEW YORK - The basketball gods have spoken, with an assist from Jason Kidd.

The Toronto Raptors will open their first playoff series in six years at home to the Brooklyn Nets at 12:30 PM et Saturday afternoon.

The Raptors learned their fate early in the second half of Wednesday's season final - a 95-92 loss to the Knicks - when Chicago fell to Charlotte in overtime, assuring Toronto would finish with the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

Brooklyn had been red-hot, winning 33 of 46 games - the second best record in the East since Jan. 1 - until they dropped four of the last five contests, conceding a division title to the Raptors and ultimately falling to sixth place.

Their last stand in Cleveland suggests that the late-season collapse, or at least the latter half of it, may not have been an accident.

Kidd's Nets squandered a couple of opportunities to lock up the fifth seed, setting up a likely matchup with the surging Bulls, on the final two nights of the campaign. On Wednesday evening, with four teams jockeying for playoff seeding, the Nets' rookie head coach opted to sit all five of his starters, suiting up only seven players in a winnable game against the lowly Cavaliers. They would go on to lose by 29.

"In my experience, you've got to be careful what you wish for," Dwane Casey cautioned ahead of Wednesday's finale. "You think you want to play a certain team then you start preparing for them and say, 'wow that team's pretty good'. Then you've got a dogfight. I think the best way to approach it is let the basketball gods decide."

Faced with a similar decision, Casey - who was an assistant in Dallas when he and Kidd won a championship together in 2011 - chose to play his stars against the Knicks and compete to win.

That's just one of the factors that separate these two teams, that creates a trace of animosity going into this weekend's first-round matchup.

Whether they care to admit to it or not, the Nets took their foot off the gas in the hope of maximizing the odds of facing an inexperienced Raptors team. Whether Toronto's players or coaches care to admit it, that's a slap in the face, or at least it should be.

Do they feel slighted?

"No, man," Lowry responded, after the game. "They rested their players. That's what they did."

They shouldn't need added motivation, Casey wisely posted out.

The Raptors have been underestimated and they're about to be again. They will be lost in a sea of publicity surrounding the compelling storylines of a big market team with a payroll exceeding $100 million.

"We've played all season as the underdog, as the small guy trying to come up, whatever you want to call it," said DeMar DeRozan, who is one of three Raptors starters slated to make his postseason debut Saturday. "We always play with a chip on our shoulder and we understand going into the playoffs, we haven't done nothing. We haven't made it to the playoffs in six years. So we've got to go in there with a chip on our shoulder and understand it's going to be a dog fight every single game, just like the season was."

Their starting lineup goes into the series with 24 games of playoff experience to Brooklyn's 399. The average age of the Nets' first unit - complete with veterans and future hall of famers - is eight years older than Toronto's. It's a clash of old and young, the battle-tested versus the unproven soldiers.

"Experience is one thing but you've got to go play," said Casey, who is also venturing into uncharted waters, his first postseason as a head coach. "You have to go out and compete, it's why they play the games. Our guys are going to be ready."

"They've got a lot of older veterans that have been in the league 10-plus years so that's an advantage that we have," DeRozan said. "We understand that they're experienced and everything but hey, who isn't? Once you come in this league you're going against players all season that are experienced in some way. You just have to find a way to win."

The Raptors and Nets split a four-game season series, with each team winning one on the road.

Perhaps it was fate.

In a redditt AMA chat last month, Terrence Ross identified the Nets as a preferred playoff matchup, to which Brooklyn's Andray Blatche took issue and responded, "Ross asked for this, so they've got to back up their words."

These teams faced off in the 2007 playoffs - Toronto the third seed, the Nets, then in New Jersey, the sixth - after the Raptors won their first and only other division title. It was the first postseason experience for the likes of Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon and Anthony Parker, among others. That inexperience against a veteran Nets team - led by Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson - proved costly, as inexperience tends to be in the playoffs.

This Raptors team believes they're different, that they have something special. They may be right.

As most observers - both devoted and casual alike - are aware and will continue to be force-fed ad nauseam ahead of their first postseason game since 2008, the Raptors' rapid return to relevance in the East was unexpected.

Generous prognosticators billed them as a conference wild card, a fringe playoff team, at best. Division winner? No chance. Not with a pair of entitled New York-area giants and their gargantuan payrolls occupying the Atlantic.

Internally, expectations were being tempered, justifiably so. After years of false promises, the word "playoffs" was quickly dismissed in place of a new goal; "growth". They were indeed a wild card in the East. A newly structured front office, an expiring head coach and starting point guard, an $18 million experiment inherited from the previous regime.

"We didn't go into the season thinking we were going to be division winners," Casey admitted. "That was our goal but we knew that was going to be a lofty goal. We always go in trying to swing for the fences. Once the trade happened, no one knew. The guys kept working, kept working, kept working and [it] kind of came together."

The Raptors were 6-12 before that fabled evening in Los Angeles, the night Rudy Gay was shipped to Sacramento and the fortunes of a long-suffering franchise began to turn. From that point on they would finish the season with a record of 42-22, tops in the East.

Some will shrug them off as the poster team of a historically weak Eastern Conference and at one point, early in the season, that may have been the case. However, they made it here on their own merit. They're one just four teams, in either conference, to finish in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their 22 road wins, a franchise record, tied Miami and Washington for the best mark in the East and they finished with 16-14 against the superior Western Conference.

Their individual and collective accomplishments seem countless. Their starting five has won more games than any other in team history, each player putting up career highs in minutes logged and scoring. On Monday they hung their second division championship banner and set a new franchise mark in wins.

Six months ago that would have been more than enough. Now, it's an appetizer. They've tasted success and they want more. No one is satisfied.

"When I first got here that was one of my biggest goals, to get this team back to the playoffs," said Kyle Lowry. "I'm happy to be there but I'm not satisfied. I want to go out there, I want to make some noise and show that we're really a good team."