Meet Atlantic Division Champs in First Round Series
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Despite losing four of their final five regular-season games, many of which featured makeshift lineups and abbreviated playing time for their starters, the Brooklyn Nets are revved up and ready to do whatever it takes to win their first playoff series since 2007.
''It's the playoffs,'' first-year Nets head coach Jason Kidd intimated following Brooklyn’s regular season-ending 114-85 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday night.
''It's a new season. Everybody's zero and zero,” he added. “It's the first one to four [wins].''
The Nets’ late season swoon dropped them to the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, matching them up with Atlantic Division champion Toronto in the opening round.
Games One (Saturday) and Two (Tuesday) will be in Toronto before the series shifts back Downtown for Games Three (next Friday night) and Four (Sunday).
After failing to chase down the young, energetic, fleet-of-foot Raptors for the better part of the season’s final four months, Brooklyn is now in position to overtake Toronto when it matters most.
The teams split four regular-season meetings, with each taking one game on the opponents’ home floor.
“It will be a very hostile environment, they have great fans, and they’ve got a great team, a team that won the Atlantic and we had four pretty good games against them,” Kidd recalled. “We split the series with them, so it should be an exciting series.”
But as any experienced player will note, the past is simply prologue when playoff time arrives.
Regardless of Brooklyn’s Eastern Conference-best 34-17 record in 2014 following a dismal 10-21 start, the only thing that matters now is how well the Nets will navigate Game One in front of what is certain to be a tough crowd north of the border on Saturday afternoon at 12:30 p.m.
"It's like a new season starts right now," said Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko. "Right now, every game counts. Every possession and every set you play on the floor is important. Right now it's going to be very important to stay concentrated and to keep our heads in the game."
Kidd, who spent his first two months on the job dodging reports that he was ill-equipped to handle the team with the largest payroll (upwards of $180 million) in NBA history, is now being talked about as a serious candidate for Coach of the Year honors.
Just the second rookie coach in NBA history to capture a pair of Coach of the Month awards, Kidd, just a season removed from the hardwood after 19 years as one of the league’s most efficient point guards, is ready to lead the Nets into the Air Canada Centre.
''I like right where we are,'' noted Kidd, who sat out his entire starting lineup during Wednesday night’s finale in Cleveland.
''[We’re in] a good place,” he added. “We've been playing some pretty good basketball of late. We've rested and guys have gotten their work in at the same time of healing some of the injuries they've had - some nicks and bruises healed. Now it's time to figure out a way to win a game on the road.''
Upon taking the job last summer, Kidd was quite open with his philosophy regarding the regular season. He would rest veteran stalwarts like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko as often as possible so that they would be fresh and ready to go when the games mattered most.
Garnett, who missed an entire month with back spasms, and Kirilenko, who sat out nearly 30 games earlier in the season with the same malady, will have to be at their sharpest as Toronto boasts a pair of big men, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, who figure to give the Nets fits along the interior.
Also, the Raptors feature a flashy backcourt spearheaded by team assists leader Kyle Lowry and leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, both of whom can rip through a defense and attack from the perimeter, causing matchup problems for Nets guards Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston.
“We know we can beat them,” a confident DeRozan stated. “We’ve beaten them twice this year. We understand they’re an experienced team. We’ve got our advantages. We can kind of put the speed on them.”
This will be Toronto’s first playoff appearance since 2008, and the Nets are hoping their own postseason experience will be a major factor in the Best-of-7 series.
Last season, the Nets appeared to have the physical advantage on a beat-up Bulls team, but wilted badly under the duress of a Game 7 on their home floor at Barclays Center and were sent home early.
Players like Pierce and Garnett, who captured an NBA title together in Boston in 2008 and returned to the Finals in 2010, were added this past offseason to give the Nets a tougher demeanor at this time of year.
Brooklyn’s depth, bolstered by mid-season pickup Marcus Thornton and “Bench Mob” regulars Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche and Kirilenko, will likely be the key to the series as the Nets will have the advantage of an 11-man rotation whereas Toronto is only likely to go eight or nine deep.
“It should be fun,” DeRozan said after Toronto’s regular season-ending loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden Wednesday.
“We understand that they’re experienced and everything but hey, who isn’t?,” he queried. “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.”
After winning a franchise-record 48 games this season, the surprising Raptors are building something big for the future in Toronto.
They will likely get a pass if they are unable to get past the Nets over the next two weeks.
“Nobody expected them to play so well this season,” Kirilenko said. “I think it’s going to be a tough matchup, but if you want to be the best, you have to beat everybody.”
After spending more money than any team in the history of the sport, the Nets are built to win now at any cost in Brooklyn.
In other words, no free pass.
The pressure of living up to the championship expectations mandated by billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov make this a must-win series for the Nets, who can ill-afford a second straight first-round flop after last year’s Game 7 debacle at Barclays Center.
That also amps up the heat on Kidd, who, as he admitted himself, is starting the coaching process all over again at 0-0.
“As a coach, my hands are really tied. I’ve got to believe in my players,” Kidd noted wistfully, perhaps remembering how exciting it was to take the floor with his teammates at playoff time.
Having him on the bench will have to suffice for the Nets as they begin their second season in hostile environs Saturday afternoon.