TORONTO — After nearly three hours Sunday, the ragged, resilient Raptors had just enough time for one final fling of defiance, one last shot to stave off what had been anticipated for months.
No, they weren't supposed to be here, not when their rebuilding season started, not after they dealt away Rudy Gay, not after they considered dumping Kyle Lowry, and certainly not after Jonas Valanciunas froze up and DeMar DeRozan backed off and Amir Johnson fouled out and they fell behind the more experienced Nets by 11 late in this Game 7.
But here, after Terrence Ross intercepted Shaun Livingston's inbounds pass, is where the Raptors were:
Down just one, 6.2 seconds from a flight to Miami, and the ball in their bulldog, Lowry's, hands.
"Going downhill," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who had masterfully managed the clock to give his team a chance.
Little did they know that this was as far as this could go.
And, so, sure, we can break down the basketball elements of that failed final play: first-year Nets coach Jason Kidd telling Kevin Garnett to trap, Ross failing to space the floor to the corner ("guys kind of panicked a little bit," Casey admitted), Pierce fighting with Patrick Patterson for position, Lowry releasing just before hitting the floor, Pierce sending the Nets to the second round.
"I just reached up, jumped up and was able to get a hand on it," Pierce said. "Sometimes it's about being in the right place at the right time."
Sometimes, fate seems to put you there.
Because, really, this is how it had to be.
This was what was ordained when Pierce and Garnett agreed to jump organizations, accepting a trade to Brooklyn just one season after ostracizing Ray Allen for fleeing Boston for Miami. This was what was necessary after the Nets beat the Heat all four times in the regular season, three times by a single point and once in double overtime. This is how Pierce and Garnett should extend their careers, or perhaps even end them.
By seeing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Garnett has played nearly as many playoff games as regular-season games against both James (25 vs. 27) and Wade (16 vs. 20).
Pierce has played 34 games in the regular season against James, compared to 25 in the playoffs. He's played 27 in the regular season against Wade, and 17 in the postseason. Their encounters have been increasingly contentious over the years, with Wade frequently joking about how, early in his career, Garnett was one of the veterans who showed him support.
Garnett and Pierce eliminated James in 2008, and both James and Wade in 2010.
James and Wade eliminated Garnett and Pierce in 2011 and 2012.
Those stats don't sound right, though.
It seems like they've played in every postseason this century.
"Yeah, seems like that, eh?" Garnett said. "Seems like we've seen D-Wade and LeBron the past seven, eight years. That's what it is, man, the best is playing the best."
Pierce and Garnett no longer qualify for that characterization; Joe Johnson has been Brooklyn's most reliable player, particularly in the season's second half, and the former Sun and Hawk led again with 26 points. Pierce didn't score in Sunday's second half, and while Garnett did produce a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds), that was his first since Feb. 1.
The Nets' overall depth and length may be more problematic for Miami than anything in particular that Pierce and Garnett provide, with the latter not even playing during Brooklyn's final two wins in the season series.
Still, whatever they've lost in steps, they've gained in scowls, and those scowls will be a welcome sight to see in Miami, after a sterile first round romp against Charlotte. Even polite Canadians had enough of their antics, gleefully chanting "KG sucks" and "Pierce sucks" until the bitter end, when Pierce blew poison kisses to the crowd.
"I can't even say some of the things they were calling me out there," Pierce later said, smiling.
"Oh, that's all good," Garnett said. "They don't boo you if they don't know you. It's a compliment. So it's all good. I love it."
So they will love what's coming now.
Both made a point to praise the Toronto fans, and rightly so; the Air Canada Centre, as Garnett observed, "was rocking," inside and out. The place shook Sunday in a way that AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami hasn't all season, as fickle, bored Heat fans have waited for moments that matter. Waited for men who matter, not just measured by their stature in the sport but by the animosity they inspire.
Toronto had no such men.
And it won't placate the South Florida populace to learn that Pierce and Garnett made respectful statements about the Heat on Sunday, downplaying the games in November, January, March and April.
"It goes out the window with the regular season," Garnett said. "What we did during the regular season was during the regular season. This is postseason. They're playing very well. They went right through Charlotte without a beat. They have a lot of confidence. They've been sitting, they've been waiting. So let's get it on."
Pierce showered praise on James.
"I rank LeBron as one of the greatest players to ever play the game," he said. "I mean, tremendous athlete, four-time MVP, two-time MVP. He's already passed so many greats that we still talk about. But when you play against the best, as a competitor, you want those moments."
The grizzled forward will get a few more, starting Tuesday.
"As a player, he's the ultimate challenge," Pierce said of James. "And you want that challenge."
This was a necessary challenge, for both sides, even if Pierce—sounding much like James—wouldn't call it a rivalry.
"Rivalries start with teams," Pierce said. "We had a rivalry with them as Celtics. It's not a rivalry with Brooklyn yet. You can't create rivalries in the regular season...The Miami team is the favorite this year. They've won two championships. We're still trying to earn our respect, as a team, as a franchise, the City of Brooklyn. That's where we're at right now."
By nightfall, they would be in Miami.
With all due respect to Toronto, it's where these Nets were meant to be.
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