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Nets, Raptors building toward fierce rivalry

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When the year began, most New Yorkers yearned for the day when the Nets-Knicks rivalry would truly encapsulate the city. With the regular season approaching its close and the Knicks scratching to just reach the playoffs, the Nets find their stiffest competition north of the border. And both teams know it.

The Nets outlasted the Atlantic division rival Toronto Raptors, 101-97, in front of a raucous Barclays Center crowd Monday night. Paul Pierce’s three-pointer with 1:14 left broke a 94-94 tie and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

The Nets atoned for their late gaffe in the two teams’ last meeting and split the season series at two games apiece. The Raptors never landed on the Nets’ radar prior to the season with all the New York chest puffing, but the two teams have built a contentious rivalry.

Deron Williams and Kyle Lowry embodied the venom with their testy matchup. These two teams do not like each other, and how great would that make a first-round matchup?

The Raptors maintain a three-game advantage over the Nets with 20 games to play. If the Chicago Bulls amass a better record than both of these teams, the Nets will play the Raptors in the first round barring an epic collapse on either side.

“It was a huge game knowing we can still win the division and move up a seed,” Pierce said. “You never know, this could be a team that we play in the first round.”

Both teams certainly displayed the moxie necessary to sustain a winning program. The Raptors and Nets each led by double-digits at different points in the game, and every time the opponent answered the blow with a counterpunch. The Nets fell behind by 12 points in the first quarter only to storm ahead by 13 midway through the third. The final score came right down to the final possessions.

Note to the players: Seven more of those, please.

“It would be great,” said Shaun Livingston, referring to a future matchup. “Obviously, our home crowd was into the game tonight; that’s what we needed, going into the playoffs, you want your home crowd behind you and they showed up tonight.”

“This was a taste of what it could be like in the future,” Raptors swingman John Salmons said.

The arena featured all the pomp and circumstance one would expect from a playoff atmosphere. Not only did the players deliver, but so too did the crowd. The Nets acknowledged post-game that a loss essentially would have clinched the division for the surging Raptors.

“That’s the (playoff) atmosphere, right there,” reserve guard Alan Anderson said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a little more intense, but it would be fun (to see Toronto again).”

The Nets flipped the script, despite missing Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko. Garnett emerged as a late scratch after head coach Jason Kidd initially penciled him into the starting lineup. Kirilenko tweaked his ankle in the win over the Sacramento Kings, and his prognosis remains day-to-day.

Despite leaving the Kings win with a shoulder injury, Pierce assured his coach that he would not miss the must-win game.

“I knew the implications of this game,” Pierce said. “This was one of our biggest games of the year, division rival, a lot on the line, so you can always pen me in in those kinds of games.”

The Nets received unexpected contributions in the win. Mason Plumlee started after Garnett went down in warmups, and Anderson tallied 11 points and three rebounds coming off the bench. Due to Marcus Thornton’s emergence, Anderson lost a share of his minutes, but he made the most of his opportunity with Kirilenko injured.

With the way the Nets are currently playing, Anderson believes the team can win under a variety of situations come playoff time.

“It’s always important, home-court advantage,” Anderson said. “We have a very veteran group, a lot of guys who have been in the playoffs, a lot of guys who know what it takes, and a lot of guys who have won a lot. We want to get home-court advantage as much as possible, but if we don’t we’re confident enough to go win away.”

The Nets will test their playoff mettle once again Wednesday night with a road contest against the Miami Heat. The Nets won the previous two meetings this year against the defending champions.

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