It is rare in an NBA playoff game that the critical stretch of play comes in the second quarter, but that is exactly what happened in Game 3 of the series between the Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors.
The beginning of the game was a back-and-forth affair that saw the teams exchange leads and battle on every possession. However, late in the second quarter Paul Pierce blew past Toronto's defense and threw down a rim-rattling dunk.
The Nets followed that up on defense with a forced turnover, and Kevin Garnett fired up the home crowd by holding his jersey up to the crowd. A couple of possessions later, the home team had an eight-point lead.
Brooklyn never looked back and won 102-98, although things got incredibly dicey in the final minute when Deron Williams missed critical free throws and Toronto trimmed a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to 97-96 with 37 seconds remaining.
The Nets controlled almost the entire game but nearly lost it down the stretch.
Joe Johnson led the way with 29 points, while DeMar DeRozan paced the scoring for the Raptors with 30.
Before the critical game started, ESPN Stats & Info set the scene for the Raptors, but it didn’t look pretty:
Of concern for the Nets was their late-arriving crowd. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated painted a picture for fans, although some of this could probably be explained away by the 7 p.m. ET start time. After all, those subways get crowded around rush hour:
The crowd didn't really factor into Toronto's mindset heading into the game though, if DeRozan's comments, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, are to be believed: "We understand, you want to call the underdog, whatever you want to call it, we go in there with that mindset. We feel like everybody's against us and we're out there to go against everybody. That's our mindset, honestly, every time we step on the road."
As to be expected in front of the home crowd (even if it was late arriving), Brooklyn got off to a quick start. SB Nation NBA pointed out that the assists were a critical part of the early offense:
However, Toronto came storming back, although NBA on ESPN gave some credit to Williams for keeping his team ahead:
Despite Williams' best efforts, Toronto led 23-19 after a quarter. DeRozan scored eight points and helped set the initial tone for the Raptors' offense:
What's more, Pierce once again struggled in the first quarter, although ESPN Stats & Info gave Nets fans some hope for later in the game:
The teams traded buckets to start the second quarter, but the Nets were plagued by Marcus Thornton's poor shooting. Brian Mahoney of the AP was there to question his shot selection and the results:
During the second quarter, Bleacher Report caught a Raptors fan clearly paying homage to rapper Drake, who had a lint roller at Game 2, every time Toronto scored:
That fan was probably thrilled with this play from Tyler Hansbrough:
The first eruption from the crowd came with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. Pierce slashed the lane like it was 2004 and threw down a powerful slam dunk to give the Nets a 45-41 lead:
Almost as if on cue, Garnett helped force a turnover and gestured to the crowd to get into it by holding the Brooklyn on his jersey into the air. Williams then hit a perimeter shot, and it was 49-41 just like that. Eventually, the Nets took a 49-45 lead into intermission.
ESPN Stats & Info showed that the play in the paint was critical for the Nets, while the Toronto Raptors applauded DeRozan's first-half efforts:
This has been a series defined by verbal prodding both on and off the court, and the team's official Twitter pages were not immune as the third quarter got underway:
As long as we are focusing on developments outside the lines, the Nets raised the stakes on Toronto's courtside crowd, as Bleacher Report pointed out:
On the court, the Nets held onto their lead in the early third quarter, but foul trouble was a serious issue:
Brooklyn built its lead up to nine points midway through the third quarter even with the fouling problems. Johnson was critical for the Nets on the offensive end:
Rod Boone of Newsday pointed out as the Nets controlled the pace that Pierce's second-quarter play was a critical turning point. In fact, Brooklyn pushed its lead all the way to 11 at 77-66 after three quarters, and it just didn't look like Toronto was going to put up much of a fight:
When Kyle Lowry picked up his fifth foul with just more than six minutes remaining, all seemed lost:
At least that's the way it appeared, but Lowry returned to the game and helped cut the lead back to single digits with a beautiful and-one finish. It trimmed the deficit to 93-86:
Toronto cut the lead to 95-91 with less than a minute left, and suddenly the relaxed crowd was on the edge. However, Williams drew a foul and then a technical from Greivis Vasquez to stretch the lead back to 97-91.
It looked like the game was once again over, but Brooklyn missed critical free throws down the stretch and DeRozan converted on an and-one finish to cut the lead to a single point. Mark Ennis of ESPN 680 summed up the developments perfectly:
Down two with 19 seconds left, Toronto's Patrick Patterson missed two free throws. That was its last chance, and the Nets hung on by the skin of their teeth to the tune of 102-98. Fox Sports Live had the highlights of the final minute:
The Nets will test their 2-1 series lead in Game 4 Sunday in the Barclays Center at 7 p.m. ET.
Considering the fact that Brooklyn controlled most of Game 3 and has the home crowd behind it, a quick start will be important. From Toronto's standpoint, the Raptors looked outmatched in the hostile environment for much of the contest but almost came all the way back in the final minutes.
Brooklyn left Game 3 with something of a bitter taste in its mouth because it almost blew a sure win down the stretch, so if the Raptors jump out to a lead, they can feed off the late-game momentum they had Friday.
On the flip side, Brooklyn needs to win Game 4 to maintain home-court advantage.
Look for Pierce and Garnett, who have much more playoff experience than anyone on the Raptors' roster, to come out with urgency.