The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors begin their quest to repeat on Monday. They finished 7-1 after the 2019-20 season resumed, and in beating the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat early on, made a statement that they very much deserve to be in the thick of the conversation to win it all with the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks.
For their first-round battle, the Raptors will face a familiar foe in division rivals the Brooklyn Nets—a team they have faced twice in their post-season history, both in the first round and both ending in heartbreaking fashion. The first was on the heels of Vince Carter’s departure, when he along with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson eked out a narrow Game 6 win over the Chris Bosh iteration of the Raptors to avoid a Game 7 in Toronto.
The second occasion came as Toronto ushered in the We The North era, and a stunning turnaround after trading Rudy Gay saw the Raptors rise all the way to the third seed—but a young Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan fell short at the Game 7 buzzer to a Brooklyn team boasting the experience of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson. You may even recall Masai Ujiri kicking off the series by yelling “F*** Brooklyn!” to an emerging Jurassic Park crowd.
What does the third act have in store? Here are five things to know about the Nets to give us a better idea:
With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Deandre Jordan all out of the mix for the Nets, many expected Brooklyn to be barbecue chicken for the rest of the league. Instead, they finished a respectable 5-3 over their eight seeding games, including wins against the Bucks and Clippers. They also almost knocked out the flaming hot Damian Lillard from postseason contention in a 134-133 loss in their final game.
Though the Raptors should absolutely be heavy favourites to win the series, the Nets aren’t as bad as many have made them out to be.
Caris LeVert must be stopped
Leading the charge for the Nets has been LeVert, averaging 25 points, 6.7 assists, five rebounds, and 1.5 steals. He is an extremely dynamic player in isolation and was very good against the Raptors as well, averaging 23.3 points while shooting 60 percent from the field overall and 61.5 percent from beyond the arc in three games.
LeVert is a great story considering the gruesome injuries he has suffered in the past, and it’s a relief to see him performing at the level many hoped he’d reach prior to breaking his leg early in the 2018-19 season. Expect the Raptors to turn to their defensive specialist OG Anunoby to make life as difficult as possible for the Nets’ leading scorer.
The Nets’ confidence is so high they genuinely believe they can beat the Raptors in a series.
“We know they’re a really good team. Obviously they’re playing good basketball, they move the ball really well, they’re a great defensive team as well,” LeVert said. “But for us, we feel like it’s about us. If we move the ball well, if we play good defence, if we’re locked into the game plan, we can win that series. We truly believe that. So, we’re gonna go into that playoff matchup all the way locked in.”
Back in June, Dinwiddie also added fuel to the fire by saying it’s the Bucks who will have to be dethroned as the East’s current top seed, not the Raptors as defending champions during an appearance on ESPN’s First Take. Raptors fans filled Dinwiddie’s mentions after that, leading to this response:
While Toronto won three of the four meetings between the two teams during the regular season, the matchups were fairly close. You may remember the thrilling 119-118 victory the Raptors had over them back in mid-February, when it took a phenomenal final defensive stand from Anunoby defending LeVert to extend the Raptors’ win streak to 14.
Now, in Shaquille O’Neal’s defence, he had no idea who the Nets would be going up against, so this wasn’t a slight at the Raptors. Still, you can bet Shaq is the type to stick to his guns and back Brooklyn to come away with the upset now that the matchup is in place.
Just more fuel to the fire.
The bear has been poked before
Not that Kyle Lowry has ever been short on motivation, but he has always seemed to find a little bit extra when someone looks to ruffle his feathers, or as Raptors commentator Matt Devlin has famously put it, “poke the bear.”
He will know where the Nets’ level of belief is and look to squash that out right from the opening tip in Game 1, and Brooklyn have already seen what can happen when they do poke the bear. After Jarrett Allen got tangled with Lowry in a battle for a rebound in a game on Jan. 4, KLow went off from three-point range on one end and played spectacular defence on the other.
“It’s us against the world and I truly believe that,” Lowry said after that game. “The mentality is to be more aggressive, more assertive because you’re going into a hostile environment. These guys are booing you and they’re talking trash, and it’s like, ‘Alright, I’mma shut y’all up.’”