EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Brooklyn Nets dismissed rampant speculation that they tanked down the stretch to set up a first-round playoff matchup with the Toronto Raptors.
The Nets, who maintain that they were trying to make sure their veterans got rest and the team stayed healthy, lost four of their final five games -- with three coming against teams that finished in the lottery.
Brooklyn did not send any of its starters to Cleveland for Wednesday's regular-season finale. The Nets lost 114-85.
Had they won that game, the Nets would have faced the Chicago Bulls in Round 1. Granted, it was the second game of a back-to-back set, so it wasn't necessarily a surprise that the starters didn't travel.
"No," first-year coach Jason Kidd said, bristling at the thought of his team tanking. "We had a plan from training camp, and we stuck with the plan throughout the year. We dealt with injuries, we kept minutes down, we never went away from the game plan or the big picture, and we felt we would be the No. 3, 4, 5 or 6 seed and we would have to find a way to win a playoff series no matter who the opponent is.
"The talk about tanking or whatever, we had to play the games. Unfortunately we didn't win some of them, and we fell from fifth to sixth. But again, if you look at our injury report going into the playoffs, we achieved the biggest goal, and that was to be healthy going in. But we'll leave that to you guys to talk about tanking."
Added forward Paul Pierce: "Well, for one, I don't play on teams that go out there and try to lose games. So, whatever belief [people] have, that's what they're going to have. And we didn't care what matchup we had, second, whether it's going to be Chicago or Toronto.
"We knew it was going to be inevitable it would be one of those two, regardless. So at the end of the year we had little injuries where we tried to rest guys, and at the end of the day, we was going to go on the road anyway and be the fifth or the sixth seed. Both of those teams proved to be really good teams, really elite teams in the Eastern Conference, so either road we took, it was like you're going to walk over nails or through thorn bushes. You've got to take one of the roads."
Nets point guard Deron Williams pointed out that Brooklyn couldn't control the results of the other teams. Had the Bulls beaten the Charlotte Bobcats in overtime on Wednesday night, the Nets would've faced Chicago anyway.
"How do you tank if you lose and somebody else wins?" Williams said. "There were so many things going on in that last game. I don't think that was even in our thought process."
Could the Raptors use the tanking speculation as motivation?
"My motivation is to win a championship," Pierce said. "It doesn't take me getting up finally when somebody talks whatever they're going to talk."
The Nets, who have the most expensive roster in NBA history -- around $190 million between payroll and luxury taxes -- believe they have enough pieces to win the title.
"I definitely do; it's just that the playoffs is a long grind," Pierce said. "Health is always going to be a factor. If we can stay healthy, I definitely believe that we can play with anybody in the Eastern Conference and we can beat anybody in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference. You know, things just gotta come together, and I think they are right now. We're full strength, and like Kevin [Garnett] says, 'Anything is possible.'"
The Nets were eliminated by the Bulls in the first round of last season's playoffs, losing Game 7 at home. In the offseason, general manager Billy King hired Kidd and acquired Pierce and Garnett in a blockbuster trade.
The team encountered much adversity early -- losing 21 of its first 31 games. Brook Lopez went down with a season-ending foot injury. But the Nets rebounded after Jan. 1, going 34-17 and establishing an identity around playing small, forcing turnovers and exploiting mismatches.
"I think we're a different team," Williams said. "It's a different group of guys. Like I said, we're more experienced. And guys that were here last year and were part of that Game 7 loss. We still feel that. We still remember that. We don't want to have that feeling again. We feel like the moves we made this summer, we can still win a championship, and we feel like that's attainable."
Starting guard Shaun Livingston, who missed the final five regular-season games with a sprained big toe on his right foot, will return to the lineup for Saturday's Game 1 at Air Canada Centre. He said he won't have any minutes restrictions.
Livingston has not played in a playoff game in his eight seasons.
"[My emotions] are at an all-time high," Livingston said. "It's exciting, but you've just got to keep everything under control."