April 18, 2014, TORONTO (ISN) – Whether or not the Brooklyn Nets purposefully set themselves up to face the Raptors, Toronto coach Dwane Casey warns: Be careful what you wish for.
The Raptors make their first playoff appearance in six years when they host the Nets in Game 1 on Saturday — and the opening-round series is already contentious before it has even tipped off.
The Nets seemed to have been angling for this particular matchup, apparently believing their veteran experience will win out over a young, inexperienced Raptors squad.
“It would tick me off if that was the case. . . If they did, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for,” Casey said. “For us, we were going to take whoever came to us, whether it was Brooklyn or Washington or Charlotte. We were prepared for all three teams.”
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“Good for them,” Ujiri said. “You know what? We haven’t lost one — I know I haven’t and I can sense from the players — second of sleep worrying about the Brooklyn Nets. At the end of the day if we want to be a good team, we have to play good teams. We’re not hoping for anybody. We’re in the playoffs. You have to play.
“They can do whatever they want. We’ll be right here.”
The Nets lost four of five games down the stretch, and Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd sat his starters for Wednesday’s season-finale — a whopping 29-point loss to Cleveland — fuelling chatter the Nets were tanking in order to drop to the sixth seed, pitting them against Toronto rather than Chicago.
If they were insulted by suggestions the Nets preferred to play them, the Raptors weren’t saying Thursday.
“Man, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder all year. We don’t care. It ain’t going to stop now,” said Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan. “The same chip we had before the season even started, we’ve got it now. Nothing’s going to change, it don’t matter who we’re playing against. At the end of the day it’s a playoff team. Only the good teams make the playoffs, right? You’re going to have to play somebody good so it don’t matter to us.”
The Raptors (48-34) and Nets (44-38) split their four games during a season that saw Toronto win the Atlantic Division title and set a franchise record for victories.
Raptors sophomore Terrence Ross added fuel to the fire — unknowingly he said —about a month ago when he said he hoped for a Toronto-Brooklyn matchup. That prompted Nets centre Andray Blatche to tell the Daily News: “You better be careful what tree you bark up. He better be careful.”
Ross said his comment was both blown out of proportion and misinterpreted.
“I said I wanted to have Brooklyn because, looking up to those guys when I was younger. . . Paul Pierce, KG (Kevin Garnett), Joe Johnson. . . so getting a chance to play with them would be like an honour,” the 23-year-old Ross said Thursday. “Everyone kind of ran with it, took their own thing, whatever, that’s what happens when you’re in the playoffs.
“But that’s who we have now and I guess I did give that comment (and get) what I asked for.”
There is a massive discrepancy in playoff experience between the two teams, and it’s why many are picking the Nets to knock out the No. 3-seeded Raptors. Pierce alone — with 136 playoff appearances — has played in almost as many post-season games as the entire Raptors roster combined.
“We’re all in the same league, man. Honestly, that’s how I look at it,” DeRozan said, sounding exasperated by the suggestion. “Credit to them, they did what they did but we played against guys who are experienced all season, honestly.”
The 24-year-old DeRozan has zero playoff experience, but rolled his eyes when asked how long it will take to adjust to the pace of the post-season.
“It ain’t like it’s rocket science or nothing. Everybody keeps talking to me, bringing it up like it’s rocket science or I’ve got to know trigonometry or something,” DeRozan said. “You just figure it out. You just go out there. 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.”
Longtime NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an NBA television analyst, weighed in on the Brooklyn tanking storyline in a conference call Thursday, saying the Nets “absolutely tried to get to (the Raptors) by resting their guys.”
“People for some reason think Toronto is a better matchup,” Van Gundy said. “I love watching the Raptors play.”
Van Gundy had kind words for Casey, who worked under a new GM this season in Ujiri, and saw his team thrive after the blockbuster seven-player deal in December that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento.
“I think Dwane Casey has gone through a lot of upheaval in his team in Toronto as far as roster changes, management changes, and he’s handled himself with such dignity and class, and he’s got his team playing so hard and so well together,” Van Gundy said. “I just think they have to keep doing what they’ve been doing, competing hard, playing together, big guys controlling the paint, and they’ve got a tough matchup.
“I like the Raptors a lot. I think they’ve had a remarkable season led by a remarkable coach, and I think they’ve got a great shot at advancing to the second round.”
Before Thursday’s practice, the Raptors sat down to watch the 60-second “We the North” commercial that’s part of the club’s new ad campaign. The Great White North is embraced and the Ontario capital takes centre stage in the video that kicked off a massive franchise rebrand that will continue over the next two years.
Ujiri said Canadian fans — and especially those in Toronto — will embrace the Raptors during this long-awaited playoff run.
“I think they want to make that building on Saturday and whenever we play here a living hell for those teams,” Ujiri said. “It’s what I’ve said from Day 1 — it should be a disadvantage to come and play here.
“‘We The North,’ for me, it’s who we are. Enough of all of these excuses of weather and enough of all of these excuses for players who didn’t want to be there. For me, that’s all crap. We’re moving forward. We hope Canada can stand tall, the Toronto Raptors can stand tall and we can be who we are.
“We’re proud to be a team in Canada. We’re not apologetic to anybody or any players that left or anything that happened in the past. We are who we are. We’re going to move forward. We’re going to grow. We’re going to win.”