(SportsNetwork.com) - Playoff basketball is back in the great white north and the Toronto Raptors look to make the most of it in their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Raptors were able to fend off the Nets for an Atlantic Division title and captured the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They battled the Chicago Bulls for the No. 3 spot and had the tiebreaker between the teams.
Toronto is in the postseason for the sixth time in franchise history and for the first time since 2007-08. Tough defense and great guard play from All-Star DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry catapulted the Raptors past the regular season and right behind East powers Indiana and Miami.
Are the Raptors headed for a lengthy playoff run for years to come?
Just wait and see.
DeRozan talked about facing the Nets in the conference quarterfinals.
"We just gotta go out there and play. Study film, study them, and get ready for them," DeRozan said. "We know we can beat them, we beat them twice this year. It should be fun. We understand they're an experienced team. We got our advantages and disadvantages. It could go both ways."
DeRozan was asked about what advantage Toronto has and he said age. He added speed will be key on the fast-break against the Nets, who split the four games with Toronto this season and are meeting the Raptors again in the playoffs. They won four of six games back in the 2007 playoffs.
Toronto set a franchise record for wins with 48 and ended the season with nine wins in the last 12 games.
Game 1 of this series will be Saturday afternoon at Air Canada Centre.
The Nets have been in the playoffs in each of the last two years since moving to Brooklyn from the Garden State, but it wasn't all that pretty early on.
Brooklyn named Jason Kidd head coach in the offseason and acquired a few pieces to the puzzle in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Pierce and Garnett were vital pieces to Boston's 2008 NBA title and struggled out of the gates in their new digs with a 10-21 record. That's when Pierce and the Nets came together. Pierce averaged 12.6 points before New Year's Day, then the Nets won five in a row to start 2014. The Nets went 10-3 in January and closed the season with a 34-17 record.
"I like right where we are," Kidd said after a season-ending loss at Cleveland. "A good place. 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."
The Nets were the only team the two-time defending champion Miami Heat couldn't beat once and lost in seven games to the Chicago Bulls in last year's conference quarterfinals. They are relying on more veteran leadership, coupled with the solid play of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams moves them further along in the postseason.
BACKCOURT: DeRozan will try to beat the Nets with speed and precision when he makes his playoff debut. DeRozan had a superb season with an average of 22.7 points and recorded 22.0 ppg in his last seven. Quick off the dribble and durable, DeRozan ranked in the top 10 in scoring, minutes and made free throws. Lowry is always a threat for a triple-double and averaged 21.7 points, 6.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds in his last 19 games played. Lowry and DeRozan will supply most of the scoring in this series and could possibly lead the Raptors into the second round. Lowry scored 20-plus points in 17 of the 27 games after the All-Star break.
It's hard to go against point guard supreme in Williams. D-Will ended the regular season with 14.3 points and 6.1 assists, and had 13.5 points and 8.0 assists in two games against Toronto this season. Williams is a true point guard in this league and is getting a bit older. He can play defense as well as dishing out dimes, and has at least one steal in 30 straight games. Williams did miss 18 games this season after just four in 2012-13. Shaun Livingston shares guard duties with D-Will and won't make a difference.
FRONTCOURT: Brooklyn's frontcourt is one of the more experienced in the NBA with Johnson, Pierce and Garnett. Pierce and Garnett practically make their living in the playoffs from their days with the Celtics and got out of Boston just in time. Garnett will be making his 14th appearance in the playoffs, while Pierce (11) and Johnson (9) are right behind. Williams is in the playoffs for a sixth time. But the Nets will get by Toronto with their frontcourt play and rested Garnett toward the end of the season. Johnson led Brooklyn with 15.8 points and is a threat from 3-point range. Garnett may have averaged only 6.5 points, but it's playoff time. Too bad center Brook Lopez has been out for the season for quite some time.
While the Nets bring leadership and experience to the frontcourt, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has youth and athleticism. Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson have great size and length underneath and will try to outwork the Nets underneath and force their guards to dish the ball outside. All three big men averaged more than 10 points per game and will take this series as a learning experience for the next few seasons. Another trait Valanciunas, Ross and Johnson have is longevity, as each played at least 77 games.
BENCH: Brooklyn's bench is more talented and it's because of just four players: Mason Plumlee, Marcus Thornton, Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko. Teletovic can shoot from beyond the arc and has made five or more 3-pointers off the bench in five games this season. Thornton was acquired for depth in a deal with Sacramento and Kirilenko is making his seventh playoff appearance. Plumlee is best known for his block on LeBron James on a dunk attempt. Look for Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson to get action.
The Raptors' bench won't do much except give DeRozan, Lowry and the big a breather. They won't do much with John Salmons, Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak, but Greivis Vasquez is a talented reserve and could also start. He posted 9.6 points and 4.1 assists, and can fill in at both guard spots. Patrick Patterson is another key reserve.
COACHING: Kidd thrust his name into the Coach of the Year conversation, but then again, so did Casey. Kidd, though, made a bold move in demoting assistant coach Lawrence Frank and the Nets bought into his philosophy, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Brooklyn went 35-11 when holding opponents under 100 points and 23-5 when grabbing more rebounds. Kidd was known for his defensive prowess, especially with steals. Although he may be aging, Garnett can still play with his back to the basket. The Nets would have had an easier time on defense if Lopez stayed healthy.
Casey can pat himself on the back for what the Raptors achieved. It was a tough decision to trade a player of Rudy Gay's caliber in December, but Casey got his team to play his way and the rest is history. Casey won his 100th game with Toronto earlier this month and is third in team lore in wins behind Sam Mitchell (156) and Lenny Wilkins (113). The main similarity between Kidd and Casey is defense, as Toronto ended seventh in opponents' scoring (98.0) and the Nets were 10th (99.5).
PREDICTION: The Nets were one of the best teams in the NBA since the calendar turned and their .667 winning percentage in that time was the seventh-best in the league. It's hard to go against Brooklyn even though it has age issues, but this is the time of year the players have been waiting for. You think Pierce and Garnett wouldn't love to make another trip to the NBA Finals? It could happen. And it starts with the Raptors, a team on the rise but not quite ready to make the next move. DeRozan would be a nice piece to any franchise and a first-round exit will only make him more hungry this offseason.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: NETS in SIX