The Brooklyn Nets acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for times like these. The team now faces a surprising 3-2 deficit against the Toronto Raptors on the heels of a roller-coaster contest that proved this is most certainly a game of runs.
The Nets battled back from a 22-point deficit with 11 minutes, 23 seconds remaining, tying the game with 3:18 to play. Were it not for Kyle Lowry's continued brilliance, Brooklyn could have pulled this out.
But here's the weird thing. The Nets would have pulled it out with Pierce and Garnett sitting on the bench, playing the role of cheerleaders rather than seasoned stars.
That wasn't how the story was supposed to go. The former Boston Celtics were ostensibly brought in to play the important minutes and hit the big shots. Instead, it was Alan Anderson scoring a four-point play in the clutch.
And it was Joe Johnson leading the way for much of Wednesday night. He scored a team-high 30 points compared to 14 combined points from the Truth and KG.
As the series becomes increasingly defined by size and athleticism, it's only fair to ask whether Brooklyn's elder statesmen have what it takes to stave off elimination. Perhaps it's even fair to ask how long they'll actually be on the court in Game 6.
We do know this much: They have confidence.
It was Garnett who was previously eager to see how the Raptors would fair playing in Brooklyn.
Between the two of them, Pierce and Garnett have enough internal fortitude for the rest of the Nets. There's no doubting what they bring to the team in terms of leadership and locker room intangibles. The growing source of doubt is what they can actually do on the floor.
Though Pierce was fantastic in Brooklyn's Game 4 loss, he only scored a combined 17 points in the other two defeats. Though he's shot the ball generally well in the series, he's cashed in on just 29 percent of his three-point attempts.
Pierce has essentially played as the Nets power forward since January. The logic is that he can space the floor and pull opposing big men out of the paint, opening it up for penetration by Deron Williams and Johnson. It's a formula that's worked pretty well thus far, but its luck may have run out against the Raptors.
Amir Johnson is pretty mobile as power forwards go. He's quick enough to keep up with Pierce and long enough to put a hand in his face. In other words, this isn't as much of a mismatch as Brooklyn has typically been able to exploit.
But the Nets still need Pierce, perhaps even desperately. Don't be fooled by his absence from the fourth quarter on Wednesday night. Pierce gives Brooklyn a much-needed third option, and he's as well-equipped as anyone to hit the clutch shots.
He proved he can still do that in Game 1.
It's not unreasonable to wonder how much Pierce has left in the tank. He only averaged 28 minutes a game this season, so we haven't really seen how far he can be stretched out.
But he's been solid throughout the first-round series so far, excepting that forgettable Game 2 in which he went just 2-of-11 from the field. He's shot the ball efficiently, gotten to the line and generally done what we expected him to do.
He does, however, put the Nets at a size disadvantage so long as he's positioned at the 4. With the Nets consistently winning the battle of the boards and exploiting Jonas Valanciunas' size in the interior, head coach Jason Kidd may be forced to make some tough decisions.
If he wants to play Pierce, he may have to return him to his natural position at small forward. That has a domino effect, though. Johnson returns to the 2, and the Nets lose the quickness and floor spacing that's gotten them this far.
One last thought on Pierce. Though plus/minus figures always speak more to correlation than causation, the Nets were minus-31 with Pierce on the floor Wednesday night. It probably wouldn't be fair to blame him squarely, but statistically he was more part of the problem than part of the solution.
One way or the other, you have to think Pierce will find his way on the court. You have to believe his bench time in Game 5 was just an anomaly, an instance of Kidd trying to keep a good thing going.
Garnett may be a different story entirely.
He's averaged just 7.5 points and five rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game during the first round. His contributions have been uneven at best, and you get the sense that Mason Plumlee may be better-equipped to body up against Valanciunas.
On the other hand, Garnett can still hit that elbow jumper. And perhaps more importantly, he's been in these situations before. He's a veteran in the truest sense of the word. If he can give north of 20 minutes in Game 6 (and potentially 7), you have to find those minutes for him—right?
Brooklyn can't afford to get muscled around, and it can't afford to get run out of the building. If Garnett is a liability in those respects, Kidd's not going to play him. That may be a sad way for KG's career to wind down, but this series is about more than sentiments.
The Nets have a lot more than veteran pride riding on this series. With a roster this expensive and this experienced, the Raptors weren't supposed to be a significant obstacle. They certainly weren't supposed to go up 3-2 in the series.
And yet, here we are.
Much as the Nets are supposed to need Pierce and Garnett, they need to make adjustments, too. The Raptors are faster, stronger and more athletic. They're young, and they're hungry.
The Nets? Well, they're optimistic. "I think we'll play better on Friday at home and we'll see them back here Sunday," Pierce said after the game, according to the Associated Press' Ian Harrison (h/t ABC News).
Suffice it to say, Brooklyn needs more than optimism from Pierce. It needs an All-Star. And if Garnett's up to it, it could certainly use two.
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