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.”