Mikhail Prokhorov did not purchase the world-beating $190 million championship contender he thought he did last summer. That much is clear. But with his team's playoff life at stake, the players the Brooklyn Nets owner risked a fortune to acquire came through.
Joe Johnson scored a team-high 26 points, Kevin Garnett had a double-double and Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's game-winning shot attempt as the Nets held on late to defeat the Toronto Raptors, 104-103, in Game 7 of their first-round series Sunday.
"Held on" are the operative words. Consistent Brooklyn miscues in the waning moments allowed the upstart Raptors to battle back into the game—none more glaring than a key turnover seconds prior to Lowry's miss. With the Nets attempting to inbound the ball, Terrence Ross tipped Shaun Livingston's pass, and Ross threw the ball off Pierce's leg as he fell out of bounds.
On the subsequent possession, Toronto put the ball in the hands of Lowry, who scored 13 fourth-quarter points to spearhead the comeback. However, Brooklyn's veterans locked down when they had to, first knocking the ball loose from Lowry's hands before Pierce blocked the desperation attempt.
The Nets travel to Miami on Tuesday for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Heat. The two-time defending champs will be playing on eight days of rest after sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats in Round 1.
While those are far from ideal circumstances for Brooklyn to knock off the Heat—the team this roster was constructed to beat—it says something about the resolve of the Nets locker room that they're here in the first place. Brooklyn's season has been fraught with tumult since the jump, with a slow start putting them in danger of missing the playoffs and constant injuries keeping the rotation in flux.
That didn't stop in these playoffs. Down 3-2 following a frustrating Game 5 loss, head coach Jason Kidd made the daring move to pull Livingston out of his starting lineup in favor of Alan Anderson for spacing purposes. The move, like many of Kidd's tweaks during his first season as an NBA head coach, paid off.
While the Nets' starting lineup thrived in Game 6, the Livingston-led bench provided the spark in the series-deciding contest. He scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, Marcus Thornton came through with a playoffs-high 17 points and the Brooklyn offense as a whole blitzed Toronto with crisp ball movement and clutch shots.
"We kind of found a structure that works for us," Livingston told reporters Saturday. "Our confidence is high. We know we can go into that building and get a win. I think we're built for that."
Andray Blatche, who correctly guaranteed a Nets victory for the second straight game, scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench.
The bench's brilliance allowed for key extended rests for Garnett, Pierce and Brooklyn's cabal of aging stars.
Johnson, who averaged 21.2 points in an all-around series, was the only Nets player who received more than 32 minutes. Oft-maligned in the press for his exorbitant contract and shaky All-Star selection, he reminded many why he's considered among the league's best shooting guards this series. The 32-year-old All-Star scored 17 of his points in the second half and drained key bucket after key bucket with his patented right-handed floater.
Those points also helped deflate a Toronto crowd that rivals any we've seen this NBA season.
With the Air Canada Centre packed with raucous fans in white T-shirts and thousands more watching on a stream outside the building, the Great White North's only NBA franchise was ready to rock on every made basket. The Raptors have not won a playoff series since 2000-01 and were making their first postseason appearance in nearly half a decade.
The pressure showed. Toronto's entire starting lineup struggled with the exception of Amir Johnson, who fouled out in only 22 minutes with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Kyle Lowry's 28 points came on 7-of-19 shooting, as he spent the first three quarters trying to make too much happen on dribble-drive chances. Fellow backcourt star DeMar DeRozan failed to score 20 points for the first time since Game 1 and made critical defensive errors. The Nets took advantage of youngsters Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross on both ends of the floor, though the latter found redemption in the waning seconds.
Valanciunas, a double-double machine early in the series, was worked over on both ends by Blatche and Garnett. Sunday was the first time in the seven-game series the second-year Lithuanian missed more shots than he made.
Garnett, meanwhile, came through with his best two-way performance in months. With Kidd removing the hard 20-minute cap he tried putting on Garnett's minutes, the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer was in a much better rhythm on both ends of the floor. Engaged and active on the defensive end, it was Garnett who handled the on-ball defense and came up with a key fourth-quarter block on a Lowry drive.
Garnett's 12-point, 11-rebound outing was his first double-double since Feb. 1.
The Nets will need more of the same if they want any chance to beat Miami. While a prevailing storyline heading into the series will be Brooklyn's 4-0 regular-season record against the defending champs, this is not the same Heat team the Nets saw sleepwalking through the 82-game slog.
The Heat defeated Charlotte by double digits in three of their four games. More importantly, they should be 100 percent healthy heading into Game 1. The full week of rest gave Dwyane Wade more than ample time to heal his ailing knee and hamstring while being at as close to 100 percent as he's going to get. Wade missed two of the four regular-season meetings.
Brooklyn has no such rest time. The 30-something bodies on this roster have 48 hours to prepare themselves for not only a long flight south, but also a matchup with a team readying for a historic three-peat.
Success in the regular season is one thing, but the Nets are going to need a whole lot more than last-second heroics from Pierce and Garnett to make it through one more round.
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