This is no longer the regular season. Every quarter counts, every possession counts, and every loose ball counts. The Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors engaged in what Dwayne Casey coined a “15-round bout,” and the Barclays Center fans were the clear winner.
Throughout the thrust and parry, the Nets received a few more plays from Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, and that was the difference in a 102-98 win in Game 3. The Nets squandered all but 2 points of a 15-point fourth-quarter lead, but their dogged effort secured a pivotal swing game in a nail-biting series.
Williams and Johnson combined for 51 points, and the latter clinched the game with the last two free-throws. All three games have come down to the wire, and the Nets have earned the chance to put a stranglehold on the Raptors in Game 4 on Sunday night.
The Nets lead the series, 2-1, but both coaches like their positioning heading into the next game.
“We talk about it every day, about the small things,” head coach Jason Kidd siad. “boxing out free-throws, knocking down free-throws. ... We had the opportunity and guys did it so we found a way to win at home. Now we’ve got to come back with the same energy Sunday.”
“I love the fight from my team,” Casey said. “[The Nets] tried to throw haymakers at us, and we did a good job of battling back and staying in the game and staying competing. ... I love our resolve. That’s the one thing about this young team; they never give up, they never give in. They fight through everything.”
During the game, both teams proved why playoff basketball is the best basketball. Kevin Garnett, 37-years young, dove down on the floor for a loose ball and implored the crowd for noise. Paul Pierce slashed to the basket for a tomahawk dunk. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry willed their team back from an impossible grave, only to watch teammate Patrick Patterson miss two free-throws to tie the game in the final 20 seconds.
“The crowd gets into it (after) hustle plays, big shots, and dunks,” Williams said. “We feed off of them, and they feed off of us. I thought our crowd was great tonight and they’ll continue to be great.”
Both teams are playing like their lives depend on it, which makes for thrilling basketball. The intensity in the series’ first three games is unmatched by anything displayed in the regular season. In three decisions, a virtual coin-flip could have decided each outcome.
The jubilation and agony shines through on the players’ faces.
“I missed them,” a dejected Patterson said. “My first big free-throws that I have ever missed in my life like that. Unfortunately, it sucks but all I can do is look forward to the next big opportunity.”
“There’s no pressure,” Johnson said. “Just take it one game at a time and understand that home court has shifted, it’s in our advantage. We just want to take our time execute, and use our crowd as our sixth man.”
The two teams taught the viewers a valuable lesson. The game is never over, especially in the postseason. The Raptors crashed the rim and regained their aggressiveness in the fourth quarter after the Nets had assumed control of a raucous Brooklyn crowd.
Although the Nets escaped a near collapse, they have nothing for which to apologize. In the playoffs, teams survive and advance; they do not apologize for wins.
“Sunday is a new game,” guard Shaun Livingston said. “A win is a win, especially in a playoff series, but we understand we are a veteran team and we need to be better, including myself.”
The Raptors regretted their performance, especially early, but they will showcase a desperate aggression at 7 p.m. on Sunday. After 82 regular season games, this is what it’s all about.