It’s too easy a crutch to point out that the Brooklyn Nets were by far the most experienced team in their first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors. It’s true that just a pair of Brooklyn starters, warhorses Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, have played in more meaningful playoff games since they’ve had to have their most recent drivers licenses renewed in comparison to the entire Raptor rotation. It’s also true that Brooklyn, full of veterans slinging hash in their particular Last Chance Diner, should have been the outfit that showed more desperation in a season-defining Game 7. The Raptors, after all, have next season to look forward to. And nothing is assured in Brooklyn’s future.
Still, one has to credit the Brooklyn Nets for their execution. The players involved in Sunday’s 104-103 Game 7 win over Toronto may have been there before, but that doesn’t take away from the team’s precision and touch as it kept the younger Toronto team at arm’s length for most of the series-deciding win. It’s true that just about any NBA team appears “younger” in comparison to Brooklyn’s stray gray strands, but none of that helped a relatively inexperienced Raptors squad as the Nets held their own.
It was obvious from the outset that Nets coach Jason Kidd had his crew of on-court compatriots, many of which are of similar age, understanding that nothing was guaranteed in Brooklyn’s season beyond Sunday afternoon. The Nets trapped various Raptors as if they were an NCAA tournament crew working in mid-March to keep its season alive, forcing Toronto to think on its feet and rely on broken plays that wouldn’t work out. Brooklyn took the sort of desperate defensive chances that a team should be taking, with one game left to sustain the season.
Offensively, the Nets moved the ball crisply and concurrently relied on All-Star Joe Johnson, a player the Raptors could not counter. Johnson finished with 26 points on 25 shots, but his ability to act as a triple-threat in the face of a lacking Toronto defense did the Raptors in. Johnson's ability to belittle smaller defenders with post-ups, frighten sturdier types with drives and find teammates with passes had the Raptors on edge all afternoon, and the man who probably cost Toronto guard Kyle Lowry a deserved All-Star spot in February had his Twitter-defying-reward when it mattered most.
That isn’t to say Lowry shirked his responsibility, in what could be the free-agent point guard’s final game as a Raptor, but the Nets did manage to strike up defensive ballast that kept the slinger from getting to the spots he wanted to drive into offensively. Lowry finished with a game-high 28 points, mainly working off of 12 free throws, but you never got the feeling he had this Game 7 in the palm of his hand – unlike the way things worked in last Wednesday’s crucial Game 5 win for Toronto, one in which Lowry contributed 36 points.
This is to be credited to Brooklyn. The team took away DeMar DeRozan’s ability to cut away from the ball, countered innumerable quick-hit drives with proper charge takings, sometimes put the onus on a frustrated Terrence Ross (who had his best game of the series with a 5-of-12 shooting night, but shot less than 30 percent from the field in the postseason) and mitigated Amir Johnson’s impact on both ends by luring the Raptor big man into fouls. Johnson was an offensive revelation in Game 7, contributing 20 points and 10 rebounds in just 22 minutes, but his defensive help and offensive screening prowess were missed terribly in the minutes missed in advance of his eventual fouling out.
Again, though, Brooklyn created its own fortune. The team’s spacing was on point all afternoon, it received fantastic bench contributions from Marcus Thornton (17 points in 20 minutes), Shaun Livingston (sturdy leadership, 10 points in nearly 18 minutes) and the wily Andray Blatche (nine points in 18 minutes), and the team kept its head on a swivel during Toronto’s expected late-game comeback. Kevin Garnett (12 points and 11 rebounds) managed his first double-double since Feb. 1, Deron Williams did solid work away from the ball as Joe Johnson worked his magic, and Kidd had his team ready and cognizant after every dead ball and/or timeout.
That’s to be expected, in sorts, with a veteran team like this, but that shouldn’t take away from what Brooklyn accomplished. It’s true that a franchise that is flirting with a $200 million payroll (once coaching costs and luxury tax concerns are factored in) should expect at the very least a second-round appearance, but Brooklyn earned its second-place setting in the Atlantic Division, and Toronto more than earned its Atlantic Division-topping status. To go into perhaps the toughest of NBA road arenas in a Game 7 and pull out a win, utilizing intelligent play and smart footwork? That’s a credit to these Nets. Regardless of their age, and experience. And the payroll, even.
That experience, cliché or not, was the difference. The Nets knew what they were doing, and the Raptors are still figuring things out. It’s a cold comfort to Raptor fans, after an 89-game season, but they shouldn’t be dismayed at the thought of a veteran-laden Brooklyn team ending their season. Brooklyn didn’t back into this, and the Raptors certainly didn’t bow down in the face of a Game 7 against familiar faces.
Rather, the Nets have been there before, and they’ve earned the right to be there again.
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