The Toronto Raptors knotted their Eastern Conference playoff duel with the Brooklyn Nets at 2-2 and secured the franchise's first road playoff victory since 2001 via an 87-79 nail-biter on Sunday night.
Toronto came out guns blazing after a Game 3 loss and got a game-high 24 points from DeMar DeRozan, with gritty point guard Kyle Lowry chipping in 22 more for good measure. Amir Johnson exploited the smaller Nets lineup beneath the rim for 17 points and five boards.
The Raptors even the series at 2-2 with an 87-79 win in Game 4. DeMar DeRozan finished with 24 points. pic.twitter.com/UzKo1Ncla0— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 28, 2014
The veteran Nets looked anything but for most of the contest—especially when it mattered most. Paul Pierce led the way with 22 points, but the next best total came courtesy of Mirza Teletovic's 12 off the bench. Brooklyn made just four of its 20 attempts from deep, turned the ball over a stunning 16 times and shot just 65.5 percent from the charity stripe.
Josh Lewenberg of TSN 1050 aptly summed up the spirited road effort by the younger team:
Raptors showed a ton of character in their grittiest and most important win of the season. Go ahead, count them out. They crave adversity— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 28, 2014
The air was sucked from the Barclays Center immediately after the opening tipoff.
After a tough loss on Friday in the same arena, the Raptors came out firing on all cylinders. Problems containing the Nets' smaller lineup were suddenly gone and the spotty offense was automatic.
With 8:48 left in the first quarter, Jason Kidd had to call a timeout in an effort to halt the momentum of the contest.
His team was already down, 13-2.
Tas Melas of NBA.com noted the rediscovered swagger of the visitors:
Confidence is roster-wide for the Raptors tonight - don't know if Lowry's toughness is inspiring them, but they look like a new team.— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) April 28, 2014
DeRozan was the spark plug as the Raptors jumped out to the 11-point advantage. His team hit 5-of-6 from the field in that span before he raced to 20 points by halftime.
His biggest blunder? An errant shot that gave the Nets some semblance of time to regroup, as captured by NBA on ESPN:
The Raptors lead the Nets by 10, despite this DeMar DeRozan shot ending up in an unusual spot high above the rim. pic.twitter.com/zqLTyDHGjF— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 28, 2014
Remember how the Nets had an edge in the previous games with Pierce playing down low in a smaller lineup that proved tough to defend? ESPN Stats & Info detailed how the Raptors finally overcame the issue after just one quarter of play Sunday night:
Raptors by 13 points after 1 quarter. Amir Johnson has almost as many points in paint (10) as Nets (12)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 27, 2014
Toronto cooled a tad and scored just 16 points in the second quarter, which was good for a 51-44 advantage at the half.
Shooting 52.6 percent from the field helps. So do nine second-chance points. But the real reason Toronto had the look of a team littered with veterans was the emphasis placed on ball control, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann illustrates:
Raptors turned the ball over just once on their first 30 possessions. Then 4 times on their next 11. Still, 5 is a good # for the half.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 28, 2014
This proved to be a recipe for success along with a heightened focus in another area, as Lowry touched on before the game, per The Canadian Press, via TSN:
"Man we've just got to be strong with the ball. They're definitely physical when we drive the lane but we've got to be a little bit stronger. It's playoff time. We've got to be stronger with the ball when we're driving."
The flow was drastically different in the third quarter, as the more experienced Nets seemed to rise to the occasion through physical defense aided by overwhelming length at each position.
Said defense forced Toronto to shoot 1-of-16 from the field through the first nine minutes of action, with Pierce himself outscoring the hapless Raptors:
Paul Pierce outscoring the Raptors 10-8 in the 3rd quarter— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2014
Alex Raskin of The Wall Street Journal provided additional detail:
Of course, this is the playoffs. No lead is safe. Toronto made an 8-0 run late in the third quarter to even things up at 67 with 12 minutes to play.
That momentum carried over to the final quarter. Neither team could miss in the opening minutes and the lead changed hands several times, but the Raptors eventually pulled away on a deep three from Greivis Vasquez that increased the lead to 83-79 with about two minutes left.
The veteran team certainly didn't look the part in the closing 90 seconds. Down four points, Brooklyn committed three offensive fouls, while Lowry hit a clutch layup to go up by six and extend the 12-2 run with about a minute left.
One shoddy Brooklyn offensive possession later capped off by a missed layup, Toronto played the free-throw game to keep the lead and kill the clock.
The @Raptors outscored Nets 14-2 in last 6 minutes. Nets were 0-6 from field with 4 turnovers in last 6 minutes— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2014
Nets loss can be attributed to their 4th-quarter shooting woes. Take a look pic.twitter.com/p4x345lkUC— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2014
Both teams make their way back up north for Game 5 in Toronto, where the Raptors will look to take a 3-2 advantage in the series before heading back to Brooklyn for Game 6.
Which team wins Game 5?
The health of guys like Johnson and Lowry will be key on Wednesday. Johnson banged up his knee in the second half Sunday and played limited minutes afterward. He'll once again need to have a big game against the smaller Nets lineup, especially considering the Nets are no strangers to winning in Toronto, having done it to start the series.
For Brooklyn, the task is much simpler. Shoot better than 65.5 percent from the charity stripe and get Joe Johnson (just seven points on Sunday) more involved. The defense is very effective for stretches, so improved efficiency in areas that shouldn't be a problem in the first place can result in a Nets win and a chance to close things out at home in Game 6.