Basketball has always been - and will always be - a game of ebbs, flows and ever-changing momentum. But even by basketball standards, the Toronto Raptors (3-2) sure know how to turn their games into wild roller coaster rides.
On Wednesday night amidst an electric ACC crowd, the Raps served up three emphatic, assertive quarters of basketball, building up as much as a 26-point lead. Then, they proceeded to give it all away, allowing 44 Brooklyn Nets points in the fourth and enabling the visitors to come all the way back. It wasn't until the Nets squared the contest at 101-101 with x minutes remaining that the hosts awoke from their quarter-long slumber, doing just enough to eke out a 115-113 victory.
The fourth quarter breakdown was undoubtedly troubling, but the fact that Toronto still emerged with a critical win served to keep relevant the considerable production that the Raps engineered throughout much of the game. Kyle Lowry was once again the starting point for everything that the club did, pouring in 36 points on 11-19 shooting, including 6-9 made three's and 8-10 free throws, to go along with a team-high six assists.
Now, the series shifts back to Brooklyn for a pivotal Game 6 that will speak volumes of how much damage the Raps inflicted upon themselves through their fourth quarter swoon. If the Nets jump on them early, then it'll be hard to ignore that Game 5's late fall-apart will have had the reverse effect to Game 4's late defensive stand.
Remember how I mentioned late in the regular season that Lowry's looming free agent windfall could be tempered by a shortage of point guard-needy teams with cap space? Yeah, that no longer applies. Every NBA club has room for a heart-and-soul leader and clutch playoff performer, and Lowry has made himself a boatload of cash by serving as the most dependable option in a series that also includes Paul Pierce (more on him later), DeMar DeRozan, Deron Williams and, arguably, Joe Johnson. And, seriously, that second quarter buzzer beater!
The Physical Edge
As the series has progressed, the Raps have staked their claim as the aggressors among the two teams. On Wednesday night alone, their commanding presence enabled a considerable free throw advantage (29-36, compared to Brooklyn's 22-30), a slight rebounding edge (37-34) and foul trouble for Johnson, Alan Anderson and Andray Blatche.
The (Almost) Collapse
Let's count some of the "you can't do that if you want to win" moments from the Raptors in Wednesday's fourth quarter, shall we? There were the low percentage, late-in-the-shot-clock jumpers that made for easy fast break opportunities the other way*, the three four-point plays made by the Nets, the thoughtless Lowry turnover that directly led to Johnson's game-tying three, the colossal defensive brain fart by Amir Johnson as he lost - and then fouled - Anderson in the final minute as he made an open three (yes, I covered that in the four-point plays but it warrants its own mention) and the would-have-been-a-goaltend play by Jonas Valanciunas that would've earned him permanent goat status in T.O. sports lore had the whistle not blown a millisecond earlier.
* A quick aside: Toronto was guilty of a personal pet peeve of mine in basketball. I understand the temptation to slow down the game and go deeper in the shot clock when nursing a big lead, so as to run down the game clock as much as possible. The problem, as was the case with the Raps, is that you are abandoning a successful game plan in favour of willingly limiting yourself offensively. Realistically, there was very few times when a team is sporting a big enough lead that they can win by swallowing 24 seconds of game clock at a time. As my dad likes to say, 'change a losing game, don't change a winning one'.
The Game 5 celebrity rundown: Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Leafs legend Daryl Sittler, Raps alumni Morris Peterson and Jerome Williams, Toronto FC's Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, Julio Caesar and Dwayne De Rosario and, of course, Drake (and yes, they were actually giving out lint rollers in his '416 Zone').
One person in attendance whose celebrity stock recently went through the roof was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was on hand alongside other league executives. I'm sure Silver was actively looking to remain anonymous, but how cool a moment would it have been for him to be shown on the big screen in order to receive what would have surely been a raucous ovation?
This might be one of my favourite things about the entire series.
It was downright perplexing to see a Nets' crunch time lineup featuring Mirza Teletovic and Anderson joining Williams, Johnson and Shaun Livingston. Even in the excitement of the game's waning minutes, it was hard not to notice Kevin Garnett and, even more notably, Pierce riding the pine. On the night, Pierce had more turnovers (five) than made baskets (three) and finished with a -31 (Teletovic, his primary replacement, finished a +31). I guess 'that's what he does' and 'that's why they got him here'.
The Raps come up against a desperate Nets side in Brooklyn for Game 6 on Friday (TSN, 7:00pm).