With the best-of-seven series tied at two games apiece, the Toronto Raptors hosted the Brooklyn Nets in front of a thunderous Air Canada Center crowd. Although we've seen the potential of this fan base in games one and two, the crowd support still has a breathtaking quality to it that I don't see fading anytime soon. The 20,000+ fans in attendance for tonight's game were treated to a wild game. One that I'm sure brought nearly everyone to the brink of exhaustion as the Raptors dominant play early on seemed to evaporate as the fourth quarter rolled around. Fortunately, the 2013-14 Raps showed just how they earned the no.3 seed in the East, and recovered from a shaky stretch to close out the game and secure the win. Now holding a series lead for the first time since going up 2-1 on the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the Raptors are merely one game away from a date with the defending NBA champs, the Miami Heat.
This game started with both teams showing an improved shooting touch compared to what we've seen so far in this series. Neither team seemed to get caught up in the off-court festivities on tonight's occasion. As a result, the offensive sets looked crisp and open shots were falling more often than not. Well (technically) not quite, but the Nets did convert on 50% of their field goals while the Raptors managed to knock down 47.6% of their attempts from the field.
One area of concern for the Raptors in the early going was a couple of quick foul calls that saw Jonas Valanciunas get subbed out before really establishing himself in the game. Valanciunas has been one of the Raptors greatest mismatches for the Nets undersized rotation to try to contain, but as we've seen throughout the season, it only takes one or two mental mistakes to render him in foul trouble.
With Jonas on the bench, it was up to the other big man in the Raptors starting lineup to provide a threat in the paint. Amir Johnson did exactly that as he went a perfect 4-for-4 (9-points) in the opening quarter, most of those buckets came in-and-around the painted area where the Nets lack a true defensive anchor.
At the end of the first quarter, the Raptors held a 3 point lead over the Nets and we had ourselves a ball game. On both sides of the ball Toronto looked engaged. Though they didn't build a lead to show it, the Raptors managed to hold the Nets primary offensive threats in check.
With a solid first quarter under their belt, Toronto started to apply a bit more pressure on the gas pedal in the second. Virtually, Toronto started playing to their potential and for the first time in the series it became somewhat evident that Toronto was the more talented team on the court. The Raptors managed to ratchet up the defensive intensity, limiting the Nets to only 19 points (36.8% FG) in the quarter. As coaches will often preach, Dwane Casey especially, offense will eventually come when effort is put in on the other end of the floor.
In the second quarter that philosophy came to fruition as the Raptors matched their defensive success with a thrilling offensive showing. Kyle Lowry led the charge, injuries and all, to contribute 13 of the Raptors 34 points in the second frame. The most impressive three points of the game, up until that point, came on a Lowry heave of the ball at the buzzer. That three pointer extended the Raptors lead, heading into the locker room, to an imposing 18 points at the half. With 21 points in his first 18 minutes of play, I could almost hear the cash-register sound ringing between Kyle Lowry's ears. That man is going to get paid this summer, and I hope the Raptors get the pleasure of paying him.
Hyperbole aside, the first half of this game was just what the Raptors needed in a game like this. There were contributions from almost every player that saw minutes on the court, and the score heading into the second half reflected that team effort; 62-44.
Two storylines ruled the third quarter; the Raptors picked up where they left off and someone turned the lights on in Joe Johnson's head.
The Raptors shooting continued to impress as they shot 57.9% in the third quarter and put up 29 points as a team. The offensive production was fairly distributed, however, Valanciunas finally saw the court for an extended stretch and he made the most of his playing time. He outworked whoever the Nets put on him, whether it was Mason Plumlee or Kevin Garnett, and showed a polished post game to score 8 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the quarter.
Unfortunately, Joe Johnson went on a roll of his own. Regardless of the defensive coverage thrown his way or whether he was double-teamed or not, nothing caused enough friction to throw him of his game. As a result, Johnson torched the Raps for 18 points in the quarter on an All-star worthy 8-of-11 shooting. Even with Johnson playing as well as he was, the Raptors manage to win the quarter by a score of 29-25 and most people in the Twitter-verse seemed to think this game was all but over. Oh, how we were wrong.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the scoreboard read: Raptors 91, Nets 69. That's right, the Raptors were 12 minutes away from winning if they could just hold onto a 22 point lead, AT HOME.
In basketball though, these types of games are never as finished as we'd like to believe. Especially when there exists a play that rewards a player four points in one offensive trip. Yes, these plays are rare but those who watched the game witnessed two such plays (both in favor of the Nets) in the final quarter of the game. The basketball gods saw an opportunity to knock the cocky Toronto fan base of their horse one odd bucket after another, and part of me thinks they took some sick enjoyment out of it. I'll never know, but the Nets managed hit shot after shot to chip away at what many thought to be an untouchable lead.
With 5:39 left in the game, the Raptors lead was cut to 97-89,
At 3:19, Joe Johnson made another 3-pointer to tie the game at 101-101.
From there, it was left to none-other-than Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to close the game out. Lowry scored 7 points in the last 3 minutes and DeRozan made all four of his crunch-time free throws to seal the victory. The game was up for grabs until the final seconds, and a last second inbounds pass from Vasquez nearly gave Toronto a city-wide heart-attack, but the final whistle blew and the Raps stood victorious.
With a series lead, 3-2, the Toronto Raptors will head to Brooklyn for Game 6 on Friday Night. A win will end the series and book a date with the reigning NBA champions, Miami Heat. A loss will bring both teams back to Toronto for Game 7... for my mental health, I hope it doesn't come down to that.
Shout-out to Kyle Lowry. He showed up tonight when the team needed him the most and scored a heroic 36 points (11-19 shooting) to go along with 6 assists. There's really not much else to say about the guy other than there's a whole leagues-worth of fans who are jealous he isn't on their team - this makes me happy.
Final shout-out to the crowd at ACC for chanting "BROOOOOKLYN" while we had the huge lead. Regardless of the "charma" that it brought, it was hilarious to hear Toronto chant it louder than the Barclay's Center could ever dream of. Keep it up.