Just when it looked like the Toronto Raptors were destined to fall into a 3-1 hole against the Brooklyn Nets, Dwane Casey's scrappy, hard-nosed bunch churned out an ugly 87-79 victory Sunday night.
With the win, Toronto reclaimed home-court advantage for the remainder of the series should it wind up going the distance.
After exploding for 35 points in the first quarter, the Raptors offense stalled over a crucial 24-minute stretch during the second and third quarters, mustering a combined 32 points over that span.
Limping toward the game's finish line, it appeared as though the Raptors were dead in the water. Kyle Lowry remained dinged up. Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson were hobbling through the closing stages.
Still, the Raptors' youth trumped the Nets' experience, squashing that narrative once and for all.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Raptors had tied things up. And that's when the Nets collapsed, allowing Toronto to go on a 14-2 run over the game's final six minutes while Jason Kidd's offense stalled in previously unimaginable ways.
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
By my math, #Nets were 3 for 17 from the field in the fourth quarter.— Rod Boone (@rodboone) 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
There was nothing pretty about it. But when your franchise has experienced so much postseason futility over the last decade-plus, a messy, come-from-behind win can feel like a series-shifting triumph.
Raptors beat Nets, snap their 13-game road losing streak in playoff games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 28, 2014
Now, seemingly with the upper hand as the series shifts back north of the border, the Raptors will look to stake their claim as the kings of the Atlantic Division once and for all.
Toronto's Resilience Remains Key
This was supposed to be Brooklyn's time to show that it had the poise and resolve necessary to fight through adversity.
Instead, the Raptors stole the Nets' thunder with authority.
Despite an offensive showing in Game 4 that could at times be labeled as putrid, the Raptors hung on for dear life and clawed back after Paul Pierce sparked Brooklyn's attack in the third quarter.
Once again the focal point of Toronto's offense, Lowry tied his playoff career high by scoring 22 points on 7-of-17 shooting while battling a bruised knee. The Raptors were also a team-best plus-14 with Lowry on the floor Sunday.
"He's dealing with a lot right now but he came through with flying colors," Casey said of Lowry following the win, according to TSN 1050 Radio's Josh Lewenberg.
Casey jokes that they would've gotten into a fight had he tried to take the hobbling Lowry out of the game— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 28, 2014
And even when Lowry didn't have the ball in his hands, Toronto's offense remained afloat thanks to the composure of backup point guard Greivis Vasquez.
In 35 huge minutes off the pine, Vasquez dropped nine points and nine dimes while recording a plus/minus rating of plus-10.
It's that kind of depth and next-man-up approach that has Toronto clicking entering Game 5.
Even with a struggling DeMar DeRozan (24 points on 7-of-19 shooting in 43 minutes) chucking his way through the win and Jonas Valanciunas limited to six points on 3-of-3 shooting, the Raptors proved that experience isn't a prerequisite for earning respect, as CBS Sports' Royce Young noted after Toronto nearly stole Game 3 on the road:
The Raptors aren't done yet, though. Even as the higher seed, they needed to prove to themselves in some ways they belonged, that they could win. Game 2 was an impressive takedown, but going on the road is another animal. And they were right there. A few more plays, a couple better decisions and the Raptors could get the game they need in Game 4. Just got to grow up a little between now and then.
After Game 4, one thing's clear: These teams are equals, and it would be foolish to think otherwise.
Factor in a Raptors three-point defense that's limited the Nets to 25 percent shooting (22-of-88) from beyond the arc through four games, according to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, and Toronto has to be considered front-runners entering the series' home stretch.
Can Brooklyn's Big Guns Step Up?
Pierce wasn't the problem. In fact, he was the solution the Nets desperately needed, scoring 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting.
In order to pull out a series victory, the Nets will need more consistent production from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, each of whom faded into a sea of offensive ineptitude on a night when Brooklyn so desperately needed them to produce.
Williams, for all of his offensive talents, sputtered to the tune of 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting, five turnovers and six assists, and his passivity certainly didn't aid Brooklyn's cause.
Johnson was even worse, scoring seven points on a meager 2-of-7 shooting.
Joe Johnson has been a complete non-factor in the biggest game of the season thus far.— devin kharpertian (@uuords) April 28, 2014
On the game's biggest stage, the brightest stars are supposed to step up. And while Toronto's stole the show, Brooklyn's looked inferior more often than not on Sunday.
But it would be foolish to discount Brooklyn's bevy of talent based on one game alone. The series' first three games saw both Williams and Johnson score 20-plus points on two occasions, making them the only Eastern Conference tandem to average at least 20 points entering Sunday night, according to the team's public relations department.
We know Brooklyn has the weapons necessary to take two of the series' final three games. The question that lingers regards their ability to all step up at once.
In Games 1 and 4, it was Pierce. In Game 3, it was Johnson and Williams. But when will they all click in one harmonious, victorious note?
All of these high-priced, A-list names were brought together with a singular goal in mind: to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy at season's end.
Step one of that championship blueprint is now being threatened by the Raptors' budding confidence, something the Nets appear to lack.
Tied 2-2, who wins the series?
At the very least, the intensity hasn't been there for a complete 48 minutes, and Pierce acknowledged as much following the loss.
"Those 30-point quarters have got to go in the playoffs," Pierce said, according to WFUVSports' Kenny Ducey. "Maybe it's an attitude adjustment."
At this stage in the game, the Nets have no other choice. They'll either adjust, or they'll be headed toward an early vacation.
Who's Got the Edge?
With 12 minutes remaining in Game 4, the answer would have been Brooklyn. The Nets appeared primed to overcome a disastrous early-game showing en route to a 3-1 series lead.
Now, the answer is unequivocally Toronto. With two of the series' final three games set to unfold at Air Canada Centre, the Raptors have to be thrilled with where they stand.
They were never supposed to be in this position in the first place, and the chance to signal an official changing of the guard atop the Atlantic Division would do wonders for the franchise's future outlook.
Factor in Toronto's 25-16 record at home and the Nets' 16-25 mark away from Barclays Center during the regular season, and it's hard not to like the Raptors' odds, no matter how banged and bruised they may be.