Less than 48 hours removed from Wednesday night’s insane Game 5, the Raptors and Nets will be back at it again on Friday at the library Barclays Center in Brooklyn. This time, the stakes—simple as they may be—are higher than ever: With a win Toronto advances to a second-round matchup with the Miami Heat, while a Nets’ win would send the series back to the Air Canada Centre for a seventh and deciding game.
So, yeah, this is a big one:
What the Raptors have going for them:
The Blown Lead: Wednesday’s terrifying fourth quarter was an indication of the Raptors’ youth and inexperience, sure, but believe it or not there are positives to take from it. Well, at least one: the Raptors are pissed off. They’re also happy they got the win, of course, but comments from players after the game and following Thursday’s practice, made it clear that coughing up such a big lead and having to grind out the W will be a legitimate motivating factor to clean things up and avoid complacency on Friday night.
The Stripe: As I mentioned before Game 5, DeMar DeRozan’s ability to get to the line and, more importantly, the fact that he’s hitting 88.5 percent of his freebies in the playoffs, has been valuable to the Raps in so many ways—not the least of which is closing out games. But Toronto’s free-throw success—ignoring the end of Game 3—has been a real strength across the board. Friday will be another nail-biter and, as is so often the case in these kinds of contests, a big part of it will come down to who can hit their free throws. Both the Raps and Nets have been averaging 30 free-throw attempts per game for the series, but the Raptors are making them at a higher rate—82.7 percent, which (heading into Thursday’s games) was second only to Oklahoma City.
What the Nets have going for them:
The Comeback: Sure, a blowout loss may have lit a fire under the Nets’ heading into Friday’s game, but in the wake of their big fourth quarter, the club has a reason to carry an awful lot of confidence in their ability to step up and execute into Game 6. You never like to see a team with an on/off switch (though, I suppose it’s been working for Miami), but it can’t hurt for Brooklyn to know now for a fact that even if they’re down 22 with 12 minutes left to play, they can still make a game of it.
Ballhawks: A big part of the comeback, and a real strength of the Nets throughout the series, has been their ability to force turnovers. They’re averaging 8.8 steals per game in the playoffs—the most of any Eastern conference team— and nearly four more than the Raptors through the first five games. It’s a cliché but it’s true that every possession counts in playoff games. Those extra opportunities can be make-or-break material.
Joe Johnson: Wednesday’s fourth quarter exposed the reality that, for all the talk of Paul Pierce’s late-game resume, Deron Williams’ all-star pedigree and the influence of Kevin Garnett, it’s Joe Johnson that the Raptors really don’t have an answer for. Because of his size and his skill handling the ball, Johnson is one of the hardest two-guards in the NBA to contain one-on-one, forcing the Raps’ defence to continue to double-team and hope the Nets don’t find the open man. What’s more, Johnson is one of the NBA’s preeminent streaky shooters. If he’s still feeling it from the other day that will obviously go a long way toward a Brooklyn win.
Player to watch:
Amir Johnson: Johnson is a darling of the analytics world, but it doesn’t take a statistician to know that the Raptors are successful when Johnson plays well. On Wednesday, his stellar performance was, understandably, overshadowed by Lowry’s brilliance, but Amir’s versatility and tendency to be in the right place at the right time (a genuine basketball skill) are major assets. He’s also averaged 14.6 points on 19-of-26 from the floor in the Raps’ three wins, compared to just 4.5 on 4-of-8 in the two losses.