By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — The Brooklyn Nets got a win in Toronto and had fourth-quarter leads (one of 15 points) in each of their two games at home.
Nobody expected the Toronto Raptors to just roll over and die. But their resilience was on full display over the final minutes of Game 3, coming back from that 15-point deficit to give themselves a chance to tie, and again in Game 4, outscoring the Nets 14-2 in the final six minutes. Now they’re back in Toronto for Game 5 on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) with the first-round series tied 2-2. The pressure rests on the Nets, the team with the highest payroll in NBA history and 10 times as much playoff experience as Toronto.
After the way the regular-season series went, the Nets shouldn’t be surprised at where they are. Seven of the eight games between these two teams have been within five points in the last five minutes. And now, the Raptors have four games of playoff experience and a knowledge that that they can beat the Nets on this stage.
“We know they’re a tough team,” Paul Pierce said after practice on Tuesday. “We know that they are not an easy team to beat. That’s the way they’ve been all year long. They’ve been resilient.”
The Raptors, of course, were the better team in the regular season, the only East team that finished in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They were also the best fourth-quarter team in the league and have outscored Brooklyn by 20 points over the four fourth quarters in the series. Since Pierce told Toronto why he’s here in Game 1, Toronto has executed better down the stretch.
But the Nets are a plus-18 in the other three quarters and know that they could have a 3-1 series lead if they could just make open shots.
More than two thirds of the Nets’ jumpers have been uncontested in the series, a slight uptick from the regular season. But their effective field goal percentage on those open jumpers has dropped almost 12 percent (from 51.7 percent in the regular season to 40.1 percent in the series), by far the biggest drop-off of any playoff team.
They also shot 19-for-29 from the free throw line on Sunday, splitting 10 of their first 11 trips.
If those shots start going in, the Nets are in good shape. But they don’t want to settle and just believe that their numbers can only go up. Game 3 was their best offensive game and one that they would have won comfortably if their defense hadn’t let up the last few minutes. That was also one game in which they took more than half of their shots in the paint and got to the line more than 30 times.
If the Raptors continue to take the ball out of Joe Johnson‘s hands, the pressure is on Deron Williams to make plays and shots. Williams has scored 46 points in the Nets’ two wins and 25 in their two losses.
“I just got to find my spots out there,” Williams said, also adding that he wants to push the pace to find easier shots early in the shot clock. “When they do double Joe, just driving into close-outs, just trying to get to the basket.”
Pierce also talked about not settling, but said that the pressure isn’t just on Williams.
“We just got to do a better job of making that extra pass when Joe passes out of the double-team, instead of taking the first available shot,” Pierce said. “It’s not about a certain individual on this ball club. We’ve thrived off our depth. We’ve thrived off a number of guys stepping up. Whether it’s me, Deron, or any other guy, it’s a team thing and everybody should take it upon themselves to play better.”
As a group, the Nets feel they just need to “play better” more than they need to make adjustments. Coach Jason Kidd said Monday that “we don’t mind all the attention on Joe,” believing that his team should be able to take advantage of four-on-three situations when Johnson passes out of a double-team.
“It’s going to come down to execution,” Pierce said. “It’s going to come down to the little things in the last quarter, where one play can make or break a game. So we got to be cautious of our turnovers. We got to do better at the free throw line. We got to be able to execute.”
The Raptors aren’t going away, so the Nets must win this series — rather than waiting for Toronto to lose it.