For a team that has so often been defined by failure over the years, it would have been hard for even the most optimistic Raptors fan to expect a win. A 17-point lead had evaporated. Paul Pierce was getting to the rim with an ease that belied his 36 years, while Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson were hobbling all over the court.
Kevin Garnett had just made a free throw to put the Nets up one, 79-78, and the Raptors' fate hung in the balance. Five minutes to go, and the outcome of a delightfully unexpected season was in doubt. Lose, and despite post-game assertions to the contrary, a Nets' victory would be all but inevitable. Win, and head back to Toronto for a pivotal Game 5 with the series tied at two.
Five minutes later, the Nets hadn't scored another point. The Raptors had reeled off an improbable 9-0 run, highlighted by the taking of three charges and a mini-skyhook from Lowry that was Magic Johnson in the 1987 Finals all over again.
Lowry also made the first field goal of the game, but even then it was obvious how much his right knee was bothering him. Every fall to the floor came with a grimace and every trip to the bench was actually a trip to the floor along the baseline, where his knee was worked over like a heavy bag. It seems likely that Lowry won't be healthy for the rest of the playoffs, however long that might be. It also seems likely that he'll still find a way to be effective.
"It hurts,"Lowry said to reporters after Game 2. "But ain't nothing can stop me from playing."
The same could probably be said of Johnson, who's spent the better part of this season dealing with a variety of ailments. In this game Pierce fell on Johnson's knee as the Raptor was - what else? - trying to take a charge. Chasing Pierce around has given Amir fits at times, but 17 points on 7-11 shooting is nothing to sneeze at.
There were many others who contributed in ways large and small. DeMar DeRozan, who Lowry said after the game was "evolving into a superstar before out eyes", again got to the free throw line at will and made several tough shots in the first half. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson each logged 30+ minutes off the bench, and even Chuck Hayes made an impact, with four rebounds in limited action.
Even with all of that help, it is Lowry and Johnson who are at the heart of everything good the Raptors have done in this series. Johnson has been inconsistent and Lowry hasn't shot 50% in a game yet, but this series might already be over if it wasn't for them.
As for the team as a collective, an argument could be made that they hadn't played well in any of the first three games. After Game 4, that's probably still true, though playing a "good" game is necessarily more difficult in the playoffs than it is in the regular season. Outside of a 35-point first quarter, the Raptors' offense never really got on track, especially in the second and third. DeRozan is still settling for too many tough midrange jumpers and the games in Brooklyn have seen the Raptors move away from Jonas Valanciunas, who only took seven shots over the two games (and made all of them).
Of course, the defense was outstanding down the stretch and very good overall, but the Pierce matchup continues to befuddle and the Raptors continue to dodge bullets because the Nets have been unable to consistently make threes. There's also the continuing disappearance of Terrence Ross, who played 14 anonymous minutes in Game 4 and has looked completely out of place since the beginning of the series. If he can somehow get his confidence and his shot back, the Raptors will benefit from better spacing and should be able to give Lowry and DeRozan more room to operate.
Outside of that, it's becoming clear that this series is going to come down to a handful of plays in the closing minutes of the next (at least) two games. Whoever is able to execute better will win.
Game 5 goes Wednesday. MLSE should consider reinforcing the roof, because there's a chance it might get blown off.