By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
TORONTO – Basketball can be a game of inches too.
The difference in the first round series between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors was the length of Paul Pierce‘s fingers, which reached up and blocked Kyle Lowry‘s shot as time expired in Game 7, sending Brooklyn to the conference semifinals with a nail-biting 104-103 victory.
Lowry had somehow squeezed between Deron Williams, Alan Anderson and Kevin Garnett, losing the ball on one side of the triple-team and recovering it on the other. With all the defense’s attention on him, he had somehow willed his way to the basket one final time.
“That young man,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, “did everything he could to get to the basket.”
“Sometimes, it’s about being at the right place,” Pierce said afterward, “at the right time.”
The cumulative score in 11 total games (regular season and playoffs) between these two teams was 1,070-1,070. It really doesn’t get any closer than that. Eight of the 11 games were within three points in the final three minutes. And the team that got its first Game 7 win since the Nets came to the NBA in 1976 was the team that barely hung on.
The Nets’ offense had been rolling through the Raptors over the last 2 1/2 games. They led by 11 early in the fourth quarter and by nine with less that four minutes to go. But they couldn’t stop the Raptors’ offense, which scored 30 points in the final period.
“We were right there,” Casey said.
Lowry was attacking. DeMar DeRozan was making something out of nothing. Patrick Patterson was rolling to the basket. The Nets committed a couple of dumb fouls and just couldn’t get a stop … until they absolutely had to.
“We might have bent a little bit,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said, “but we didn’t break.”
It took every last inch for the veteran team with the big names and the largest payroll in NBA history to get past the young guns who had never been here before. The Nets knew how hard it was and how good the Raptors are. Toronto’s division title was no fluke.
“This was a very difficult series,” Garnett said. “It tested everybody’s will here. If anything, I think we grew up a bit during this series.”
That says a lot about the Raptors, who face some questions this summer. The contracts of their coach (Casey) and best player (Lowry) expire at the end of June. But if those two guys are back, Toronto will be back in the playoffs, with an incredible crowd on their side again.
“This is one of the best environments in basketball,” Pierce said of the Air Canada Centre, “as far as the road crowd, the noise, the enthusiasm. This is as tough as it’s going to get. And to come in here in this type of building, the way they play and the way the crowd is, it’s so gratifying.”
The Raptors had the crowd, but the Nets had the matchups. And that’s more important in a playoff series. The Raptors just had no answer for Joe Johnson, who scored 26 points in the deciding game, half of them in the fourth quarter, repeatedly going one-on-one with whomever the Raptors threw at him.
In the fourth, that list included point guards (Greivis Vasquez) and big men (Patterson). Brooklyn’s final field goal of the series was a ridiculously tough runner by Johnson (against Terrence Ross) that gave them a seven-point lead with just over two minutes to go. Johnson played more than 45 minutes (a season-high for a regulation game) on Sunday, and the Nets needed all of it.
“For us to post him every time down, get him the ball where he’s the focal point, for him to make plays,” Kidd said, “he’s as good as they come down the stretch.”
The Nets played through Johnson all series, something that will be more difficult to do against the Miami Heat, who are bigger on the wings, in the conference semifinals, which begin Tuesday in Miami.
After grinding through a series that went down to the final play of Game 7, Brooklyn has just 48 hours to prepare for the defending champs. The Nets went 4-0 against the Heat in the regular season, but know that doesn’t matter now.
“We know we can beat them,” Johnson said. “But it’s going to be a lot different from the regular season.”
The Nets can take something on these last seven games, where it took every basket and every stop to separate them from the Raptors by the thinnest of margins. But it’s already time to move on.
The champs are waiting.