In the fourth quarter, the arguments for experience, injuries, age, and home-court advantage all went out the window. A raucous Barclays Center crowd expected the Nets to win, but the upstart Toronto Raptors flipped the script.
Behind a gimpy Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors stole Game 4 from the Nets with an 87-79 win. Lowry overcame foul trouble and poured in 22 points, including a dagger skyhook over Kevin Garnett with 1:13 left in the game. DeRozan finished with a game-high 24 points.
The green Raptors have adjusted to playoff basketball in flying colors.
“We are playing for our life, man,” said guard Greivis Vasquez, whose lone three-pointer with 4:07 left gave the Raptors’ an 83-79 lead. “We are not satisfied with what we have, we want more.”
The Raptors seized home-court advantage after the Nets had taken it in a Game 1 win. Lowry and forward Amir Johnson survived five fouls in the fourth quarter, with the former making a risky steal and the latter taking a Paul Pierce offensive foul to the chest.
“I think we’re encouraged that we go home 2-2,” Lowry said. “Now it’s a three-game series and we’ve got to take care of home, home’s not going to take care of us. ... Our confidence is high, we’ve been excited. We thought we were going to win on Friday and unfortunately we didn’t, and we thought we were going to win tonight and we did.”
When the Nets constructed this team, the fourth quarter appeared like a clear advantage. With the experience and star power of Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, and Pierce, how could the Nets not rise in crunch time?
Surprisingly, the Nets have come up small in the last three fourth quarters. In Game 4, the Nets managed only three field goals and 12 points in the final 12 minutes. During the previous game, a 15-point lead evaporated to two in a matter of five minutes.
“The last four minutes is normally where we feel very comfortable, and we just got out of character there,” head coach Jason Kidd said.
The Nets will have to adjust heading into Game 5 Wednesday night in what promises to be a chaotic Air Canada Centre. The Raptors have clearly adjusted to the Nets.
After Williams and Johnson shredded the Raptors for 51 points in Game 3, the duo struggled to mount much of anything on the offensive end Sunday night. Johnson scored just seven points on seven shots as the Raptors threw everything but the kitchen sink at the All-Star scorer.
“They’re a competitive group,” said Pierce, who led the Nets with 22 points. “We understand that this is a group that’s not going to back down, that’s not going to give up. They earn a lot of people’s respect around the league. ... They’re not going to go away or something, and we understand that.”
Casey tried to downplay the significance of one win, but the result was the difference between a five-game exit and what could be a seven-game barn burner.
The Raptors feel that they are up to the task, which did not appear to be the case early. The Nets fell behind by 17 points in the fourth quarter, but a furious run to close the half coupled with a 1-for-16 Raptors’ drought to open the third quarter changed the game. The Nets jumped ahead by five points and the Raptors sank into a bleak situation of hanging heads and ill-advised shots.
Casey pressed the right buttons, and the Nets experienced that same malaise throughout the rest of the game.
Back to the drawing board for Kidd and his staff in this intense chess match. What could have been a quick series now looks poised to go to the distance.