Paul Pierce blocks Kyle Lowry’s shot at the buzzer, Nets hold on for Game 7 win over Raptors

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The Nets were firmly in control for most of the second half of Game 7 in Toronto, but it all began to come crashing down with less than a minute left.

A double-digit advantage was down to six, when Kevin Garnett committed a loose ball foul on a rebound with 56 seconds left that put Patrick Patterson on the line, with the chance to cut into the lead while no time elapsed.

He sank both free throws, and the lead was now four.

Garnett fouled Kyle Lowry on the Raptors’ next possession, once again a terrible decision in that situation, giving Toronto more free throws while the clock remained stopped.

Lowry hit both, and the lead was down to two.

Deron Williams was intentionally fouled on Brooklyn’s next chance, but he was able to hit just one of two free throws. Lowry drove and got a runner to bank home, and it was a one-point game with 16 seconds left.

After two free throws from Shaun Livingston, it was Terrence Ross getting to the rim for the quick two, a shot the Nets were happy to allow because seconds ticked off, and they still retained the lead. But Brooklyn failed to get the ball inbounds twice, first needing a timeout to avoid a five-second call, and then turning it over thanks to a bad pass from Livingston and an incredible defensive play from Ross.

With 6.2 seconds left, the Raptors were down one with possession, and had one final chance.

Lowry to the basket was an understandable call by Dwane Casey, but the Nets seemed to know it was coming. As multiple defenders swarmed, Lowry was still able to get through and get a shot up in the lane, but Paul Pierce was right there, and got the clean block with his left hand as time expired.

That’s how close this series was — it came down to the closing seconds of a seventh game in order to be decided. And if you look at all 11 of the games between these two teams over the course of the season, they couldn’t have possibly been more evenly matched.

Joe Johnson did the heavy lifting for the Nets offensively, scoring 11 straight for his team at one point in the fourth quarter, and finishing with 26 points. But he was even more important than that, because the attention he got from the Raptors defense in the first half with constant double teams allowed Brooklyn to swing the ball until it landed in the hands of someone who had a wide-open shot.

Marcus Thornton was the beneficiary of plenty of those possessions, knocking down four of his six looks from three-point distance while finishing with an important 17 points in just over 20 minutes off the bench.

On the Raptors’ side, they got an incredible performance from Amir Johnson, especially in the first quarter. He scored 12 of his 20 points in the first nine minutes on 6-of-7 shooting, to go along with four early rebounds. Foul trouble limited him the rest of the way, however, and he managed to play just 5:28 of the second half before picking up his sixth foul on a tough call he received for essentially falling on the leg of Joe Johnson.

Lowry finished with 28 points, seven rebounds and three assists, and carried his team at times on a day where DeMar DeRozan was just 5-of-12 from the field in over 45 minutes of action.

Simply put, it was an incredible finish to a highly competitive series.

The Nets will face the Heat in Miami on Tuesday to open the second round, while the Raptors have some tough decisions to make in retooling the roster for what hopefully will be a deeper playoff run next season.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”