Jason Collins won’t be a factor in the Brooklyn Nets series against the Toronto Raptors.
Chances are the closest he’ll get to the floor will be the lay-up line. The 13-year NBA veteran was signed late in the season strictly for depth, but Collins has seen this movie before, where a veteran Nets team led by Jason Kidd toys with an emerging Toronto Raptors star and leaves him dazed, confused and doubting himself.
It was 2007 and Kidd was the Nets’ point guard rather than their head coach, and the Raptors star was Chris Bosh rather than DeMar DeRozan, but the broad themes apply.
“It’s a very similar situation where we’re the sixth seed and they’re the three seed,” Collins said. “I have a lot of memories of that series.”
So do Raptors fans, and they aren’t pleasant. Collins was part of a defensive vice applied to Bosh that got progressively tighter as the series went on. Bosh had a primary defender in his face, Collins hedging over to his side of the floor and Kidd swooping down on the ball every time he dribbled.
Bosh was the primary option, and the Nets weren’t going to let him beat them. He entered his first post-season as a 23-year-old averaging 22.6 points a game on 50-percent shooting; by the time the series was over he was crying “No Mas.”
“It’s very tough,” Bosh said on his way to shooting just 39.6 from the floor against the Nets and scoring just 17.5 points a game, a big reason the Raptors fell to the Nets in six games. “People have high expectations when they really don’t know how the playoffs are.”
It was hard not to think of those moments when DeRozan, who at 24 averaged 21.4 points per game this season, was trying to sound brave in the face of the unknown before Game 1 against the Nets this time around.
“I mean, it ain’t like it’s rocket science,” he said. “I’ve been playing this game long enough, I’ve been in the league long enough, been in a lot of situations. So it shouldn’t be hard.”
In what was a classically ugly playoff game—the Nets shots just 42.5 per cent from while holding Toronto to 39.4—DeRozan might have had the ugliest outing of all.
He finished just 3-of-13 from the field, but even that was flattering. He was 1-of-10 through three quarters, and added a meaningless dunk with 10 seconds left. Play-making has been something DeRozan has added to his game this season—he averaged a respectable four assists per game this year, by far the best of his career—but managed only a single helper Saturday. Defensively he wasn’t particularly sharp either as the Nets’ Joe Johnson looked too comfortable on his way to 24 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while taking just 13 shots himself.
By Saturday night DeRozan had to admit defeat. Not only had the Raptors lost, but the playoffs had beaten him, too.
“I sat in my room the rest of the day,” he said on Sunday. “I didn’t leave my room. I didn’t turn my TV on, I didn’t watch any games, I just cleared my mind and understood it was my first playoff game.”
The temptation was to return to the ACC practice court for one of his late-night workouts that have helped turn him from a high-octane athlete with shaky skills to a more polished wing player who was eighth in the NBA in scoring this season.
But he fought it off.
“I thought about it, I really thought about it,” he said. “I was going to come back about one in the morning, but I thought don’t put too much pressure on myself, just get some rest, regroup today and get ready. Try not to think so much and stress myself out.”
It was probably a wise move; no amount of solo gym time can make up for the experience DeRozan and his teammates don’t have.
The optimists in the crowd are hoping that the “real” Raptors will show up for Game 2 on Tuesday night—the team that moved the ball crisply and took care of it in the process, rather than the bunch who kicked it away 19 times.
“I think Game 2 is a whole different animal,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “The newness and the shiny part of the playoffs is worn out by Game 2… It will help our whole team.”
It better: According to WhoWins.com the team that goes up 2-0 in a first-round best-of-seven in the NBA goes on to win the series 95 per cent of the time.
This is the third time Toronto has made the playoffs on the back of a young star, and twice before it followed a familiar script: When the heat got turned up they wilted.
In 2000, a veteran New York Knicks team smothered Vince Carter, holding him to 3-of-20 in Game 1 and a measly 30-percent shooting for the series as the Raptors were swept in three games. In 2007 it was Collins and the Nets who got inside the brain of Chris Bosh and rendered it mushy.
Now it’s DeRozan’s turn. Though he was still sounding confident despite his rough start.
“Yeah, I don’t need a whole ’nother playoff round to get ready for it,” he said. “I watched a lot of film, I understand. I’m definitely not going to make the same mistakes twice.”
He spoke hopefully about finding the balance between aggressively looking for his shot and being decisive when it came to using the attention the Nets are giving him to make plays for his teammates. His peers are confident he’ll bound back.
“There’s a reason he’s an all-star,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. “He’s a helluva player.”
History suggests even the best players don’t get it all figured out the first time around. In that sense the Raptors and DeRozan are battling against more than just the Nets; they’re battling against history.