By Ian Parfrey @Ianparfrey

To beat the Raptors, you have to understand them. And in some ways, they are the most enigmatic team in the East. They don’t really have strengths or weaknesses. They have the NBA’s #10 offense, and they have the NBA’s #10 defense.

The Raptors foul a lot, but even that is part of the plan. Like the more-elite defenses in Indiana and Chicago, they’ll keep you off the three-point line, and they’d rather give up two free throws than a layup. They don’t have a Roy Hibbert or a Joakim Noah to terrorize teams around the basket– this is kind of a recurring theme about this team– but they make do surprisingly well with what they have. Their big men are solid defenders, and Kyle Lowry is pretty good at bothering opposing point guards. The Raptors, led by Lowry’s 121 steals, are one of the better teams in the league at forcing turnovers.

Let’s talk about Lowry for a second. In the mother of all contract years, he averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists, doing most of his damage after the Raptors traded Rudy Gay (and then almost traded Lowry to the Knicks). Lowry’s game took a big step forward almost across the board. He shot the ball at career-high levels of efficiency, and ran the offense better than he ever had, too, posting a career-low turnover percentage. He even finished the regular season on a tear, averaging better than 25 points in his final five games.

The Nets have, in some ways, a very similar team to Toronto’s. They also force a lot of turnovers and commit a lot of fouls. On the plus side, the Nets have a far more experienced, battle-tested team, and on the minus side, the Nets have had season-long issues with rebounding the ball.

Head to Head Comparisons

Center: Kevin Garnett hasn’t looked too great since returning from a back injury. Jonas Valanciunas is a load to handle in the paint, though he’s not terribly consistent. He had 20 points and 13 rebounds in one of the Nets-Raptors meetings in the regular season, and scored in single digits in the other three. Advantage: Raptors.

Power Forward: Paul Pierce can guard bigger guys, and most bigger guys can’t guard him. Amir Johnson is a hustle player with a nice touch around the basket. I’d be far more worried about the damage Pierce can cause if he gets loose. Advantage: Nets.

Small Forward: Joe Johnson had a very efficient year shooting the ball, and playing him at the three helps to hide his defensive weaknesses. Terrence Ross‘s role in the Raptors’ offense mostly involves standing outside and waiting for open threes. He did have a 51-point game earlier in the year. Advantage: Nets.

Shooting Guard: Shaun Livingston surprised everyone, probably even himself, by starting 54 games this year, and becoming an integral part of the Nets’ second-half charge. DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at nearly 23 points per game. DeRozan’s not a great shooter, but he’s a big guard that the Nets will have a difficult time matching up with physically. Livingston may end up on Lowry instead. Advantage: Raptors.

Point Guard: This is the first year in their respective careers that anyone would pick Kyle Lowry over Deron Williams. Williams battled ankle troubles all year long, and didn’t have the numbers (or the impact) anyone expected of him. A resurgence from D-Will would tip the scales heavily in the Nets’ favor, but for now, I have to call it like I see it. Advantage: Raptors.

Bench: Both teams are pretty strong in this department. Expect the Nets’ reserves to be led by Mason Plumlee (who should see most of the minutes at center) and Marcus Thornton. Andray Blatche seems to have found his way into Jason Kidd’s doghouse again, and it remains to be seen if the talented but inconsistent forward gets to play ahead of Mirza Teletovic.

The Raptors’ bench was acquired in the Rudy Gay trade. Combo forward Patrick Patterson is their top offensive threat, Greivis Vasquez would start at point guard for some teams, and Tyler Hansbrough is a pain in the neck on the boards. Advantage: Even.

Coaching: Jason Kidd is a rookie, but he spent the last few years of his career understudying Rick Carlisle, and probably coached last year’s Knicks. Kidd made some major adjustments to get the Nets back into contention in the second half. This is Dwane Casey‘s first winning team, and his first playoff appearance, in five seasons with Minnesota and Toronto. The Raptors play better than the sum of their parts, which speaks well for his coaching. Advantage: Even.

Intangibles: The Nets have championship experience in Pierce and Garnett, and most of their other veterans have lengthy playoff resumes as well. The Raptors are a very young team– Lowry, at 27, is their oldest starter. I have to think the huge disparity in experience works in favor of the Nets. Advantage: Nets.

The Nets and Raptors split their games this year, with one Raptors blowout, and the other three games decided by a total of 7 points:

Nov 26, Nets 102-100, in Toronto. Andray Blatche led the Nets with 24 points, while DeRozan and Lowry combined for 51 for the Raptors.

Jan 11, Raptors 96-80, in Toronto. A tired Nets team playing their fourth game in five nights ran out of steam. DeRozan torched the Nets for 26.

Jan 27, Raptors 104-103, in Brooklyn. Lowry went off for 31, Pierce had 33, and the game was decided by a bad D-Will turnover and a Patrick Patterson short jumper.

Mar 10, Nets 101-97, in Brooklyn. Pierce hit a late three to seal the win, and the Nets held DeRozan to a quiet 14 points.

In conclusion, there’s no reason to think this won’t be a good, well-played series, with a good chance of a happy ending for Nets fans.

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