The Brooklyn Nets play basketball... today. The beast is alive! Not preseason basketball, not intra-squad scrimmages, the game's not getting cancelled. It's happening. It's here. Tonight, they'll play the Toronto Raptors, the matchup we've all been waiting for!
In all seriousness: not many folks know much about the Raptors on this side of the border. To help us learn a bit more about the team, I've asked James Herbert to go one-on-one with me to preview tonight's game. James is a Raptorologist, writer for ESPN TrueHoop Blog Hardwood Paroxysm, and producer for HoopSpeak Live, a weekly web show on all things NBA. Also, you should go follow him on Twitter @outsidethenba immediately. Not only is he a great follow, people who don't follow him have a 250% higher chance of contracting rabies. True story.
Here's how it works: I ask James three questions about the Toronto Raptors, in preparation of tonight's game, and in turn, James asks me three questions about the Brooklyn Nets.
On the Toronto Raptors
Devin: People were oozing over Jonas Valanciunas through preseason and in his debut. Why?
James: It's impossible not to like him. I hate to invoke the word "motor" because it's often why finesse players or versatile big guys get unfairly slammed but, good lord, his motor runs high. He sets strong picks, rebounds well, rolls to the basket strong and, though his offensive game has a long way to go, has nice touch around the basket and a potentially effective little running hook. He's physical on the court and he has this deadpan sense of humor off of it and it feels like everyone in the organization, from the front office to the locker room, wants to help him get accustomed to this continent and this league.
Expectations felt wildly high coming into the season but, through training camp and the preseason, he has at the very least met them. He certainly has exceeded mine for this stage of the transition. Had a double-double while matched up against Roy Hibbert in the opener, too. Oh, read Holly MacKenzie's profile of him if you haven't because it'll explain Valanciunas way better than I just did.
Devin: What lineups should we expect the Raptors to throw out? With Calderon & Lowry do you expect a lot of two PG sets?
James: Calderon and Lowry played about 14 minutes together in the home opener. It seems like a lineup that can be a lot more effective than, say, pairing Calderon with Jerryd Bayless or Jarrett Jack, as has been done in the past few seasons. Lowry is strong and smart enough to guard a lot of shooting guards, plus he showed an ability to set Calderon up for spot-up threes on the other end. I'd expect to see some of that lineup against the Brooklyn Nets, but probably not much when Joe Johnson is at the two. I should also note that part of the reason they played 14 minutes together Wednesday was that DeMar DeRozan shot 5-for-14, Landry Fields shot 0-for-8 and Terrence Ross shot 0-for-2. They needed something else.
Other things to expect: Amir Johnson (who came into camp in great shape and is trying to extend his range on his jumper, with great results in the preseason and poor results on opening night) to play most of his minutes alongside Calderon, heavy playing time for Bargnani and Lowry and perhaps a few delightful minutes of Aaron Gray if Brook Lopez gets Valanciunas in foul trouble.
Devin: I'd say the Nets are the likely favorites in this one. What would have to happen for the Raptors to upset?
James: Some sloppy opening night offense on the Nets' part would help. The Raptors played competent offense for the first three quarters against the Pacers, but a huge part of the reason they held a lead was the fact their opponents were turning it over. Having Lowry, Fields and Valanciunas in the starting lineup immediately helps Toronto's D, but Williams should be able to run a tighter ship than the Pacers did.
On the other end, they'll need Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan to find a way to put the ball in the hole. Bargnani had a strong start on Wednesday, then disappeared as the game went on. People in Toronto are waiting to see Bargnani play at the All-Star (seriously) level he was at before last season's calf injury and Brooklyn's much-talked-about frontcourt defense provides an opportunity for him to put together a complete game. In Game 1, DeRozan had an awful start, then made a few shots in the third quarter and that was about it. He also failed to get to the free throw line when he attacked the basket. That won't do.
On the Brooklyn Nets
James: Do you expect Deron Williams is going to go for a "THIS IS MY HOUSE!" performance in the home opener or do you think he'll be more about taking advantage of the multiple weapons at his disposal?
Devin: I think it'll depend on the ebb and flow of the game. I imagine early on he'll want to involve his teammates and try to get everyone into a rhythm, just to test out what's working and what's not. There's not a lot of room for isolation-style basketball, especially at the beginning of a season when the Brooklyn Nets roster has such potent offensive weapons. If the Nets can't build a comfortable lead after the first half, I expect Deron to start looking for his shot more in the second. If they can, I see him playing the creator-distributor role most of the game, taking only high-percentage open lane shots or open deep threats.
James: Where exactly are you in relation to the Blatchewagon? Cautiously approaching it? Driving it all the way to the playoffs? Sitting in the back covering your eyes and praying you'll survive?
Devin: Sigh.... well.... Okay, here's the thing.
I take nothing from preseason stats, because for so many clear reasons, they're not useful in long-term context. I also take everything in preseason with a heaping grain of salt, because none of this matters once the games start. BUT. With all that considered, Blatche has done everything right. He's legitimately excited to be here. He's playing well offensively, even if it's only in one-on-one sets. He hit the game-winner in the first preseason game. He's been jovial with teammates and fans. He's having a stupendous time in Brooklyn and has maximized his hat collection. He's not a great defender and it's shown, but that wasn't expected. I'm starting to buy the hype that he, at the very least, won't be a nutcase, and at the most, will solidify a position that's not natural to him that the Brooklyn Nets think they need.
So I guess if I had to align myself by one of your options, it'd be the latter: I'm clinging to the back rail, shielding my field of vision, enjoying the ride from a respectable distance -- hoping I don't end up in a ditch on Lapdance Tuesday.
James: What do the Nets need from their bench in order to win this game?
Devin: Before talking about the bench, it's important to note that Avery Johnson's plan is to have Joe Johnson anchor the second unit. So unless he's lying to all of us -- always a possibility -- expect to see C.J. Watson/MarShon Brooks/Johnson/Mirza Teletovic/Andray Blatche often. The need to play Johnson at the 3 is only magnified by Josh Childress's ankle injury, which will keep him out.
For what it is, that lineup is Brook Lopez: primed to score, but they'll struggle defending and rebounding, and how they execute those latter two facets will make or break nearly every game. Coach Johnson has preached a simplified defensive scheme, and the team will have as much of a test executing that from their second unit as they will from their first.