Heading into last night's game in Brooklyn, the stakes were clear: Win and the Raptors would all but assure themselves the Atlantic Division title for the second time in franchise history; lose and the Nets would pull within three games and tie the season series.
With both teams on the second night of a back-to-back, any built-in excuses about fatigue were irrelevant; it would be a game decided by the merits of each team. Early on, the merits were heavily in the Raptors' favor: they got off to a quick 12-4 start, highlighted by a ridiculous fast break explosion by Terrence Ross:
Ross had 12 points during a great first quarter that ended with the Raptors holding a 30-19 lead. A combination of great defense and efficient offense gave Toronto the advantage, but they couldn't sustain it during the second quarter, when Brooklyn's bench, including former Raptor Alan Anderson, gave Toronto fits. The Nets ended the quarter on a 14-6 run to close the deficit to one (51-50) at halftime.
The third quarter was a series of runs: first, a 14-0 spurt by the Nets that featured four consecutive threes, two each by Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, to put the Nets up 73-60. The Raptors immediately followed that with an 11-0 run of their own, and by the end of the third the Nets held a five point lead, setting the stage for a memorable final 12 minutes.
To paraphrase Bill Hader's great Saturday Night Live character Stefon, the fourth quarter had everything: manic Kyle Lowry, clutch Paul Pierce, and even a one-man fast break by none other than Tyler Hansbrough that ended as you might expect it would. Lowry's fourth quarter was equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. He gave the Westbrookian sense of always being on the edge, close to boiling over but constantly redeeming himself with absolutely brilliant play. One sequence saw Lowry make a tough three, gamble for a steal, recover back to his man for a deflection, grab a rebound and then draw a foul from Andray Blatche.
That was brilliant Lowry. On the other hand, he scowled at everyone from the Nets to the refs to at times even his own teammates. He also took a questionable three on one of the most important possessions of the game, with the Raptors down 99-96 and Blatche draped all over him at the top of the key. To be clear, Lowry played an inspiring game and the Raptors wouldn't have been in a position to win without him; on the other hand, his unpredictability can at times be a bit alarming.
The biggest play of the game came with the Raptors down 97-96 and about 40 seconds left in the game. After a stellar defensive series, Lowry came up with a rebound and it seemed as if the Raptors would have a chance to take the lead in transition. Unfortunately the Nets recovered well and the ball ended up with Terrence Ross, who tried to penetrate and had it poked away by Shaun Livingston.
On Monday, ESPN's Kevin Pelton wrote that Raptors-Nets was the most likely playoff matchup, appearing in 51% of his model's simulations. If it ends up happening, expect a six or seven game series. It wouldn't be easy, but it sure would be fun.
- The Raptors really, really miss Patrick Patterson, who is out indefinitely with an elbow sprain. No Patterson means more Hansbrough, more Chuck Hayes and more Steve Novak. All of those guys bring something to the table, but Patterson combines all of their best traits in one package. If the Raptors want to win a playoff series, they absolutely need Patterson at full strength.
- Jonas Valanciunas's role continues to decline. He only played 22 minutes against Brooklyn and at times looked completely lost and totally frustrated. It's obvious that Dwane Casey doesn't trust Valanciunas; that's OK if Patterson is the first big off the bench, but not so much if it's Hansbrough.
- DeMar DeRozan was bottled up by Alan Anderson for most of the night and, outside of making all eight of his free throws, didn't do much at all. He needs to be better.
- The rest of the week for Toronto features three home games, against Detroit, Memphis and Phoenix. Winning two out of three is nearly a must if the Raptors want to maintain their lead on Chicago in the conference and Brooklyn in the division.