With 6.2 seconds left in the game, the Toronto Raptors took a timeout down just one to the Brooklyn Nets.
It was May 4, 2014, and the young, upstart, surprise-third-seed Raptors had taken the veteran, future-Hall-of-Famer-laden Nets to Game 7, and it was all going to come down to one shot.
Both inside and, in a relatively new development, outside the then Air Canada Centre, fans were on their feet in eager, nervous anticipation, hoping the magical ride this Raptors team had started back in mid-December had one more unforgettable burst to come.
Taking the ball from the side out-of-bounds area in Nets territory, Greivis Vasquez surveyed the court. After nearly getting hit with a five-second violation, he found Kyle Lowry, who broke free from the crowd that gathered at the far side and came to the ball.
With five seconds now on the clock, Lowry made his way right to left around Deron Williams, got met by Kevin Garnett just inside the three-point arc, lost the ball between the two all-stars, managed to squeeze through them to recover it, and finally threw it up — only to see Paul Pierce meet him just outside of the restricted area and turn his shot aside.
The Raptors guard then crashed to the ground as the buzzer sounded and the Nets celebrated.
Toronto had lost, 104–103.
Looking back at that memorable series against the Nets, though Toronto was the No. 3 seed they were a team that boasted just 24 games of playoff experience combined among their starters, and, really, probably shouldn’t even have pushed a Nets team that had the likes of Williams, Garnett, Pierce and Joe Johnson on it to the brink, no matter the seeding.
However, that moment of failure ended up being the wellspring for the most successful period in Raptors franchise history – and it isn’t over yet.
Starting Monday, Toronto will begin its championship defence in earnest at the Orlando bubble with Game 1 of its first-round series against a familiar foe — the Nets.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Coverage of Game 1 between the Raptors and Nets begins at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT on Sportsnet.
Of course, a lot has changed for these teams in the intervening years. Lowry is the only player remaining from that era-defining 2014 series. And when asked last week about what he learned from the experience, he had a simple answer.
“Everything,” Lowry said. “What it means to be great, be better. Understand the situations that I want to be in and how to be successful in them.”
Another thing that’s changed since 2014 are the expectations on the two teams.
As defending champions — a team that just completed a regular season with the best winning percentage in franchise history and the second-best record in the league — the role the Raptors are playing this year is the complete opposite from six years ago. Whereas that 2014 Toronto roster had 24 games of playoff experience combined, Lowry enters these playoffs with 86 career playoff games of his own.
Here’s a closer look at the series, including key matchups, potential breakout players and more.
This season, the Raptors and Nets have seen each other four times with Toronto emerging victorious thrice.
However, despite this four-game sample, the Raptors won’t be able to draw from it much as the Nets they faced in those four games are much different than the Nets they’ll face in the Orlando bubble.
Brooklyn came into the season with great promise. Even though Kevin Durant wasn’t going to be available, the Nets were still a team that boasted names like Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan.
The Raptors won’t be seeing any of those big names in their opening-round series with the Nets. Instead, they’ll get rising star Caris LeVert along with a scrappy supporting cast including sharpshooter Joe Harris and up-and-coming big man Jarrett Allen.
“They’ve played just outstanding here against some of the best teams in the NBA with a 5-3 record [in the bubble] that could have easily been even better than that,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “So, Coach [Jacque] Vaughn has done a great job. The players are playing with a ton of energy and with a ton of confidence. They’re cutting and moving hard. They’re shooting the ball. They’re guarding. He’s got everyone that hits the floor playing at or even above their potential.”
The trio of LeVert, Harris and Allen will be crucial for the Nets in anything they do in this series, and as such they are likely the players the Raptors will be looking to narrow in on shutting down:
Vs. Caris LeVert: LeVert has had a breakout moment in the bubble, getting named to the All-Seeding Games Second Team for averages of 25 points and 6.7 assists per game. The fourth-year guard out of Michigan is the Nets’ go-to option and will be the most important player on the floor for Brooklyn.
The Raptors have many players who could take on the primary assignment of checking the six-foot-six, 205-pound LeVert, but the most logical choice would be OG Anunoby.
Anunoby has checked LeVert for a total of only seven minutes and 48 seconds over the three seasons he’s been in the league, so it’s hard to say just how successful he’s been at defending the Brooklyn guard. But he’s blossomed this season, becoming Toronto’s best perimeter defender, and his combination of length, strength, active hands and quick feet should make him the perfect foil to anything LeVert wants to do.
Vs. Joe Harris: A deadeye marksman, Harris has been averaging 20 points per game while shooting a ridiculous 62 per cent from the field and 54.1 per cent from deep in the bubble.
Like a more experienced Matt Thomas who’s been given more opportunity, Harris is a savant at utilizing screens and moving without the ball to get open. This season, 39.9 per cent of the 781 shots he took were catch-and-shoot threes where he ended up converting at a 44.6 per cent clip.
And even more problematic for the Raptors is the fact that, unlike a lot of three-point threats, he doesn’t do a lot of his damage from the corners. This season, Harris attempted only 73 corner triples. Meanwhile, he took 333 attempts rom the above-the-break areas and the top of the key.
Harris is especially deadly from the wing areas, which are slightly more difficult spots to defend. But the Raptors are going to have to figure out a way.
There honestly isn’t one single player who’s going to be able to do this, however. The Raptors play an ultra-aggressive brand of scrambling, switching, trapping defence that will leave players open at times. They’ll just have to do their best to make sure Harris isn’t one of those players who’s left with daylight.
Vs. Jarrett Allen: Allen is one of the best young big men in the game and has enjoyed a solid restart so far, averaging 15.7 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Unfortunately for Allen, however, he’s about to see a whole lot of Marc Gasol. And, seeing as Allen is more of a traditional low-block big, it’s tough to see how he won’t just end up as yet another victim of Gasol’s big-man prison.
Allen is probably the most athletic guy Gasol will be seeing for a seven-game series. But after seeing the nightmares the Spaniard has given the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Joel Embiid and even Giannis Antetokounmpo in the past, it’s hard to see how Allen will have a major impact on the series. Vaughn could purposefully try to match Allen with Serge Ibaka, but even then it’s not like Ibaka’s a pushover defensively.
You’re likely already aware of who the Raptors’ big guns are (Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, etc.), and we’ve just gone over the key Nets players, but what about the rest?
Unsung heroes stepping up are always a big part of the playoffs, and this series figures to be no different.
Norman Powell: The Raptors boast a tremendous amount of scoring depth and finished the season with five players averaging over 15 points per game.
Among this quintet was Powell, who hasn’t quite performed in the bubble to the same level as he did pre-restart, but still figures to be an important part of his team’s impending playoff run.
The Raptors averaged only 33.4 points per game from their bench this season. Granted, this was a team that lost 219 man games this season to injury, meaning many key bench players were often forced into the starting lineup. But the point still stands that bench productivity isn’t exactly a strength of the Raptors.
And this is where Powell could be big.
When Powell, a streaky shooter, gets on a heater, his shot-making alone can bury teams, especially because he won’t be considered as high a priority on opposing teams’ scouting reports.
This is a luxury the Raptors have and must look to take advantage of. The majority of attention will be paid to the likes of Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet and even Gasol and Ibaka, meaning there’s a good chance Powell could get lost in the shuffle. If that happens, he could easily explode and win a playoff game or two by himself.
The No. 8 and/or 9 guy in the Raptors rotation: Thanks to the aforementioned injuries the Raptors sustained, guys who weren’t expected to get much burn this season were thrust into bigger roles, and now that could pay huge dividends for the Raptors.
Nurse has an established seven-man rotation that he’ll lean heavily on, but he’s said he might look to extend the rotation in the post-season to eight or nine men, meaning there are two spots left for Thomas, Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or even Paul Watson Jr. and Malcolm Miller to grab.
Depth is always a nice thing to have, and the fact the Raptors have seemingly so many options at their disposal in the event key guys get into foul trouble or even hurt can only help.
Tyler Johnson: Johnson was an unheralded emergency signing for the Nets before the restart and has been a big part of the Nets’ bubble success.
Averaging 12 points per game during the seeding contests, Johnson has been a stabilizing force as a veteran “glue guy” on a Nets team full of young talent.
The Raptors should be wary of him finding any rhythm in this series as the Nets feed off his energy, potentially making them even more dangerous.
Brooklyn’s compete level: Make no mistake — the Nets are well aware they’re the underdog in this series and, like the Raptors six years ago, will be looking to prove they belong.
“I just saw a team that had a good competitive spirit, a lot of confidence,” Nurse said of the Nets. “They’ve got guys that have been around there long enough to bring the rest of the guys along.”
That “competitive spirit” Nurse alluded to is significant because it perfectly embodies what Brooklyn is about. An all-effort team that’s more than the sum of its parts, the Nets play hard on every possession, and force their opponents to match their intensity.
As the more talented team, the Raptors may be tempted to take a possession off here and there and still believe they can recover from it. That would be a mistake, however — right from the jump, Toronto will need to match the energy Brooklyn will surely bring.
Raptors in four.
Despite some nice pieces on the Nets and the admirable effort and toughness they exhibit, the Raptors should simply be too deep and talented for Brooklyn.
Anything short of the first series sweep in franchise history will be seen as a bit disappointing.