When Dwane Casey and his coaching staff sit down to watch the tape of last night's game, they'll want to zero-in on what went right, for the most part, in the fourth quarter; and what went so wrong in the second and third.
After playing a solid first quarter, in which the Nets were held to just 19 points, the Raps fell apart at both ends of the floor. With 5 minutes left, Joe Johnson, who was once again unguardable, hit a 3 from a Deron Williams pass to put the Nets up by 15, 93-78. Johnson and Williams were deadly all night long; combining to go 18-31 from the floor, including 5-9 from beyond the arc. The Raps had no answer to their lethal combination of size, speed, and shooting.
After that Johnson 3, however, the Raps went on a 20-9 run to finish the game because, you know, these playoffs are bonkers. Here's how those final crazy minutes went down:
Patrick Patterson nailed a 3 in the corner, before a rare pick-n-roll run by Greivis Vasquez and Jonas Valanciunas resulted in an ever rarer Jonas basket to cut the lead to 10.
After Iso-Joe hit his 3000th runner in the lane to give the Nets their cushion back, Patterson hit another 3, and a turnover by Shaun Livingston led to DeMar DeRozan, and Valanciunas (after an offensive rebound), hitting free-throws. The Raps were down by just 4, 95-91, and the Nets were doing their best impersonation of a team that desperately wanted to give the game away.
The officials -- unintentionally -- tried to keep the Nets afloat, however. Williams drew a phantom foul on Vasquez who was hit with a technical for complaining; the kind of technical that no referee should hand out late, in a crucial playoff game. The Nets were back up by 6.
After DeRozan made two free-throws at the other end, the refs bailed out Williams with a foul call again; he was trapped, and lost the ball out of bounds. Williams bailed out the Raps with two misses, however.
Now, I'm not one to moan about officiating -- I dislike what I perceive to be an unhealthy persecution complex among a segment of the Raptors fan-base, and don't believe in any grand conspiracy designed to screw the Raptors -- but it's hard to argue against the fact that NBA officiating is mediocre at the best of times. And last night it was plain bad.
Officiating aside, DeRozan went down the other end, drove, scored, and was fouled. 97-96. One point game.
A hobbled Kyle Lowry fouled-out after another questionable call, but Livingston could only make one free-throw. On the miss Andray Blatche, never the sharpest tool in the box, was called for a loose-ball foul, and Patterson stepped up to the line with a chance to tie the game.
Patterson, who finished the game with 17 points, was the Raps' second best player last night, but the big-man missed both free-throws and Landry Fields made an ill-advised attempt to save the subsequent loose-ball that had actually come off a Nets player.
After two more free-throws from Paul Pierce, Amir Johnson cut the Nets' lead back down to two (100-98), with a tip-in off a DeRozan miss, but Joe Johnson iced the game from the line.
After pulling themselves back from what was becoming a blowout at the start of the fourth quarter, and giving themselves a chance to tie up the game late, the Raps, in some ways, would've feel happy that they went out swinging. The one thing we've learned about this team this year is that they very rarely get blown-out; they always seem to have it in them to mount a comeback late in games.
Last night's game was reminiscent of 4 or 5 games the Raps played during the regular season; crappy basketball for a good portion of the game, followed by the opposition easing up, and the Raps make a furious run, only to fall short.
However, the Raps cannot play the way they played through two and a half quarters last night and expect to win games. As good as they were late, they were just as awful in the middle of last night's tilt. DeRozan finished with 30 points, but those came on 22 shots, and for most of the night the Raps' offense consisted of DeMar dribbling the ball up the court and forcing up shots early in the shot-clock. Sometimes they went in, other times they didn't; but it was no way to run an offense.
Good things began to happen when the Raps actually ran their offense with their point-guards -- Lowry looked hampered by a right knee injury all night, but Vasquez, as he showed by running a late pick-n-roll with Valanciunas, was more than capable of generating good looks for his teammates. There's nothing wrong with DeRozan taking shots, but so many of them were forced, out of the flow of the offense.
On a related note -- and just as frustrating -- Jonas finished with just 4 shot attempts. The big Lithuanian, who finished with a double-double despite playing a minor cameo role last night, represents the one genuine advantage the Raps have over the Nets. Garnett can't guard him, Plumlee can't guard him; Blatche certainly can't guard him. The Raps have to exploit that advantage, and last night they didn't even try. A complete waste.
Defensively the Raps still have major issues dealing with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and the overall size of the Nets backcourt. Johnson has been the best player in this series and that has to change if the Raps are to stand any chance of getting back into proceedings.
Game 4, an absolutely crucial game for the Raps, goes on Sunday. The team needs to play a full 48 minutes of solid basketball if they want to head back to Toronto all tied up. Valiant late game comebacks that fall short, mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. There are no moral victories in the playoffs.
Additional Game Notes
- Once again the Raps had way too many turnovers last night -- 17 in all. As Adam noted in his preview, these just seem to be mental lapses as opposed to anything crazy the Nets are doing on defense. Very frustrating.
- We can all say what we want about Joe Johnson being the least deserving 7-time All-Star in NBA history (I've sure said my fair share); but man, he's killing the Raps in this series.
- The Nets didn't set the world on fire with their 3-point shooting last night (7-20, 35%) but it was certainly better than their first two games. A progression to the mean was to be expected.
- Terrence Ross is having a nightmare of a series -- missed shots, turnovers, and shoddy defense. Not sure what Casey can do about it either; he's not the kind of player you really want to run too many plays for.
- Speaking of Casey: I didn't like his decision to ride the bench at the end of the second quarter. Way too much Tyler Hansbrough. In fact, I don't think Hansbrough's necessary in this series at all.
- Kyle Lowry left the game at the end of the first quarter with a right knee sprain and didn't look at all right when he returned. Fingers crossed that he's more mobile in Game 4.
- The Nets may be 2-1 up in this series, but the Raps are comfortably winning the arena atmosphere battle. The Barclays Center had all the intensity of a public library when compared with the ACC in Games 1 and 2.