Nets hold off late Raptors rally in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the series

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NEW YORK — The second half regular season surge that the Nets put together entering the playoffs has the players believing that a championship run is a distinct possibility.

But it won’t happen if Brooklyn closes games in the postseason the way it did on Friday, before scraping by with a 102-98 Game 3 victory over the Raptors that gave them a 2-1 lead in the series.

The Nets went up by 15 points with five minutes remaining, on a possession that showcased the strength of this team, and why it should dispose of the Raptors eventually. The ball movement was exquisite between Paul Pierce and Deron Williams, before it eventually landed in the hands of Joe Johnson for a contested three that splashed home, and appeared to be the dagger that should have sent the Raptors away.

But Toronto battled back, and Brooklyn, at least for a stretch, collapsed under the pressure. Missed shots, turnovers, and a series of fouls put the game in jeopardy once again, and it was a strong effort by the Raptors to put together a 13-2 run to get within four points with 1:07 to play.

It was a two-point game with 20 seconds left, with Patrick Patterson heading to the line to try to tie it after a loose ball foul committed on a missed free throw attempt, something which the referees seemed to find objectionable multiple times throughout the game’s final period.

Patterson missed them both, however, and the Nets held on. But given the aspirations the team has, they know that the way the fourth quarter unfolded was far from acceptable.

“When you go out there, you search for perfection,” Pierce said afterward. “No game is perfect, but you want to come as close to it as possible. By no means did we close the game out like we wanted to. Even though we won the game, you want to do a better job because as the rounds go, as the games go on, teams figure out what you’re trying to do and teams get better. And if you go to the next round, you can’t afford to make those mistakes.”

Pierce referencing the next round is telling, since it would mean a matchup with the defending champion Miami Heat — a team the Nets beat in all four of their regular season meetings.

But they’ve got to get there first.

“We’ve got to understand, everything’s on the line right now,” Pierce said. “We can’t have these silly turnovers. We can’t have these silly fouls at the end of the game. It all comes down to inches.”

Last season’s Nets know all about that, after being eliminated in seven games in the first round by a Bulls team ravaged by injury, but that played with an insane amount of heart. Williams believes this year’s Nets team are capable of so much more.

“We’ve brought in guys that have championship experience,” he said. “We’ve brought in guys that have leadership, and it’s rubbing off on everybody. It’s contagious, and we enjoy playing with each other. Not to say we weren’t last year, but we’re enjoying the run. We had some struggles early on in the season, but we’ve righted that ship a little bit. Like I said, we’re trying to make a run.”

DeMar DeRozan went for 30 just as he did in Game 2, with a very similar statistical line that saw him shoot 8-of-22 from the field, but get to the line where he converted 13-of-15 free throw attempts. Kyle Lowry banged knees with someone early on and was clearly hobbling out there, but battled like crazy and managed to keep his team in it late with a couple of dazzling and-1 finishes before fouling out with 15 points in almost 38 minutes.

The lead was built to such a wide margin by the Nets because their three best players all had it going at the same time. Johnson, Williams and Pierce finished with 29, 22 and 18 points respectively, with each shooting better than 50 percent.

It was almost all for nothing after a series of late-game mishaps, a fourth quarter full of events that may have taken some of the luster off of what should have been a more positive victory. But that might ultimately work out in Brooklyn’s favor if it causes them to focus on all that’s ultimately at stake.

“It feels good to win, but at the same time, I know we can be a lot better,” Pierce said. “I’m looking down the road, when it’s like that Game 6 or 7, wherever we’re in that situation — [even] with this team. It’s going to come down to those little things and we need can’t afford those little small mistakes.”

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.