The Nets, a team with nothing if not for its competitive spirit, were destined to annoy the Raptors enough to force crunch time at some point in this series. They’ll probably do it again, and they may even win one before it’s a wrap. Their incessant need to try hard was not enough, however, to even the series at one on Wednesday afternoon. After trailing for three-plus quarters, the adults interrupted the plucky Nets’ party, and the Raptors inched ahead for a 104-99 win that was far more difficult to secure than it should have been.
Toronto’s pre-fourth quarter issues started in the middle and permeated outward. Marc Gasol (0 points and a -13 in 17 minutes) and Serge Ibaka (eight points, five fouls, 3-of-9 shooting in 26 minutes) chose an inopportune moment to lay eggs in tandem; lined up across from them was Jarrett Allen, who pogo-sticked his way to 14 points, 15 boards, five assists and three blocks as the most effective Net in the game. Gasol battled a stingy whistle on offense, while moving too sluggishly to contain Allen’s springy work as a dive man. Defensively, the Nets deployed a far more switch-heavy approach to guarding the Raptors than in Game 1, with Allen nobly hanging with Toronto’s guards whenever Gasol roped him into the action with a screen. Allen’s own guards could freely offer a hand in help because of how deeply unworried about Gasol’s offensive juice they appeared to be.
Allen’s fine work, along with the extra space Jacque Vaughn created with his pregame starting five shake-up, caught the Raps flat-footed. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot hit a couple threes that his starting predecessor Rodions Kurucs is liable to brick. Brooklyn leapt out to a 26-12 lead early.
Toronto punched back with a quick 13-0 burst, during which Pascal Siakam played some of the most thrilling basketball we’ve seem from him so far in the Orlando bubble. His smooth 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the opening quarter saw the Raptors pull back to within four, 33-29, before the frame’s buzzer sounded.
Brooklyn pushes countered by just-barely incomplete Raptors clap-backs dominated the flow of the middle quarters, with Toronto occupying that hopeful but frustrating status of being one run of Raptors-looking basketball away from putting the game on ice.
The game’s middle section also saw a transfer of go-to scorer status from Siakam, who finished just 1-of-7 after that hot start, to Fred VanVleet, who’s dangerously close to getting full custody of the Nets franchise. Seesawing between far-out threes and crafty around the rim finishes, VanVleet accounted for two thirds of Toronto’s 24 third-quarter points.
VanVleet’s scoring in the frame was just about an absolute necessity, too. At the end of three, Toronto trailed 80-74.
Despite three quarters of uncharacteristically lax effort, the fourth quarter hit with a hint of inevitability on the air. Toronto just doesn’t lose often when there’s a win for the taking, and the Nets, while annoying in a good way, don’t boast the talent to prevent the Raptors for beating the tar out of them if they really want to.
Within a handful of possessions the game was even at 80s, thanks in large part to Norman Powell, who had his best game since before he was named the East’s player of the week back in early March. Powell’s spurts of scoring in this game saw the bike chain snag into gear; Powell’s catch-and-shoot threes and delicate and/or loud finishes on the run are two of the telltale signs that the Raptors are humming.
Once the Raptors had claimed an 86-85 lead, Kyle Lowry checked back in to close, and damnit if the Nets weren’t screwed when that happened. After 40-something minutes of probing for a decisive blow, Lowry landed one, and poor Joe Harris got stuck on the receiving end:
Shortly after Lowry extended Toronto’s lead to 91-85, Nick Nurse flashed his first bit of that creativity we all love to fawn over so much. Rather than risking the Gasol and Ibaka-powered lulls the Raptors had endured previously in the game, Nurse opted to skew small, closing with Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam and OG Anunoby.
The experiment didn’t unfold flawlessly. OG Anunoby’s frosty afternoon stayed cold into crunch time, while Pascal Siakam toggled glorious defensive stands and unsure decision-making at the other end. Toronto’s cushion was precarious, particularly after a Luwawu-Cabarrot triple pulled Brooklyn to within a three deep into the final minute. But while the Raptors’ small-ball attack wasn’t terribly cutting, their five-out collection of scurrying limbs remained a terror for the Nets to break down. As has been the case all season, the Raptors’ crunch time defense was just as deadly a final-minute option as an elite offensive player. There was just no way the Nets, down three with the shot clock off, were scoring here:
With the steal and dunk, Powell wrapped up a 24-point effort on a neat 11-of-17 from the floor. As it was revealed after the game, the dunk affirmed Fred VanVleet’s status as a powerful basketball medium, too.
fred said that before the game he told norm, "this feels like a norman powell game"— Katie Heindl (@wtevs) August 19, 2020
With the victory the Raptors hang on to the control that most non-fraudulent high seeds never relinquish in the first round of the playoffs. And by squelching what was a genuinely inspired performance from the Nets, they just may have smothered the seven-seed’s spirits as well. Game 3 goes Friday. Let’s hope is much less annoying.