The Raptors turned the ball over 19 times, the third-straight game they were squandering away possessions. “We’ve got to figure it out now,” Lowry said of the turnovers. “Not tomorrow. Now.” Terrence Ross was a total non-factor again, benched for the final 19 minutes of the game. Amir Johnson was flat. Lowry is hurt. The offence struggled for the middle two quarters, with passing virtually disappearing for a short while. They cannot stop Joe Johnson or Deron Williams with any regularity. And yet. “There’s nothing in this game that discouraged me for our team,” Casey said. That is a decidedly optimistic view, although with some just cause. Patrick Patterson missed two free throws with 19 seconds remaining that would have tied the game, despite a 14-point lead just four minutes earlier. Patterson called the misses his first botched free throws in clutch situation in his life. “Everybody misses free throws once in a while,” Lowry said. “That shit happens. I’m just being honest.”
We expected to learn something about how the callow Raptors would handle their first playoff game on the road, and so did they, and for 44 minutes it was neither good, nor unexpected. The Nets were better. The Nets had an extra gear. But they got pulled back, and that tells you . . . something. The Raptors didn’t defend well, turned the ball over with generosity of spirit, and spent a long time shooting poorly. Kyle Lowry tweaked his knee and came up limping, and Jonas Valanciunas limped a little later, and they both got in foul trouble. For long stretches, DeRozan was the only guy who could reliably create points, and he needed to be a volume shooter to do it. And the Raptors still delivered a monster run to pull from down 15 with 4:11 left to within one with 34.3 seconds left, despite everything. They still had a chance to tie the game with 19 seconds to go, except Patrick Patterson — terrific all night — missed two free throws. The Raptors could have won Game 3. They just didn’t.
Well, iso-ball returned with a vengeance in Game 3 of this series. It was survivable in the first half because DeRozan had it going, scoring 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting with a team-leading three assists, helping his team enter the break down just four, despite another 10 turnovers. In the third, though, the Raptors fell apart, largely because the offence returned to the bad old days. DeRozan attempted six of his team’s 14 shots in the frame, nearly all on jump shots, leaving his teammates largely out in the cold. There were no pick-and-rolls, little movement and the offence completely flat-lined. Head coach Dwane Casey credited Brooklyn’s defending for forcing the offence into the trouble, but said his team has to find a counter.
So they approached with trepidation, but no fear. “We went in here tonight thinking we would win this game,” said Lowry. “And I think we’re going to win on Sunday too.” It’s getting harder to argue against them. The Raptors haven’t played well yet – they made another 19 turnovers to push their three-game total to 59. They shot just 7-of-22 from the three point line and are now 17-of-61 for the series, or 28 per cent. They are getting absolutely nothing from their two guard, Terrence Ross, who was invisible again Friday and all the more conspicuous for it because his counterpart, the Nets 13-year veteran Joe Johnson, scored a very easy looking 29 points. It stands to reason that a little improvement in any or all of those areas could put the Raptors in position to return to Toronto for Game 5 on Wednesday tied 2-2. That they were down by 15 points with just less than six minutes to play can’t be overlooked. That they came back can’t be ignored either.
“It’s pretty physical but, at the same time, you can’t be too physical because I tried doing that and almost fouled out,” he said Friday following the morning shootaround. “You just have to try and match it.” And forget about getting any indication from where the line is between foul and just physical play from anyone else. “You can’t get the same calls vets get, especially your second year in the league,” Ross said sounding much wiser than his 23 years. Ross doesn’t need anyone to recite his stats over the first two games. He’s well aware he’s shooting just 16.7% from the floor and has made exactly one three in nine attempts from beyond the arc.
The hope was that the club would regroup at the half, down only 49 to 45 despite the Nets’ second-quarter run and their own series of miscues (including yes, double digit turnovers.) But instead, the Raps reverted into Rudy Gay ball, running their offense almost entirely through DeMar DeRozan, while failing to defend in much of a cohesive fashion at the other end. Throw in injuries to Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas that had both limping around, and again, a less than 100% (or maybe less than 40%) Amir Johnson, and it felt like Dwane Casey was searching for options personnel-wise for over half of this affair.
Jason Kidd on Deron Williams’ and Joe Johnson’s performance: “Those two are playing extremely well. They’re very aggressive. Joe is causing a lot of problems, looking to double-team and trapping, and when he is called, he is just stepping up. Deron’s one of those guys, finding the open guys, he was just aggressive the whole night. Joe’s been like this the whole series.
Toronto eventually did hit back, but the response came too late in a 102-98 loss. With 16 seconds remaining, after being down by 14, the Raps actually had a chance to tie the game if Patrick Patterson made good on two free throws. He missed both and the Raptors’ last chance evaporated. But whether it was Casey or Lowry or Greivis Vasquez talking, the point wasn’t the free-throw misses down the stretch, but the inability to match Brooklyn’s physicality in the early going. When the Raps were making their own run in those final few minutes, they were the more physical of the two teams. “We’ve got to understand how the officials are calling the game and play accordingly,” Casey said. “I just thought that, on the 19 turnovers, a lot of those were us getting backed off our mark and we’ve just got to be tough with the ball or, accordingly, turn around and play the way they are playing. Bumping and hitting in those situations — they are things that are correctable.”
In a game that looked like the Nets would cruise to the end, the Nets staved off a furious comeback from a hobbled Toronto Raptors squad, never quite relinquishing control but letting a 15-point lead dissipate before their two crunch-time weapons — Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce — each hit two free throws in the game’s final two possessions to swing Game 3 to Brooklyn, 102-98 in front of a late-showing but raucous crowd at Barclays Center. “I think our fourth quarter was our worst defensive quarter, and that’s the second game in a row,” Williams said after the game. “They scored 32 points this game, 36 last game. That’s tough. … We were up 15, and we got to work on extending that and putting teams away, especially in our building.” “I think we got a little lackadaisical,” Joe Johnson added.
They were beaten up and the officials — again — seemed to turn a blind eye to it all. A horrible late call, with Deron Williams clearly committing an offensive foul on Greivis Vasquez, was called a foul on the Raptors point guard and when he protested without use of any choice words, he was assessed a technical foul. Like a lot of 15-round fights, the post-game scorecard was open to dispute. That call absolutely infuriated the Raptors bench, the coaching staff and management, all of whom chose not to speak publicly about it, but the fact is this series has clearly come down to four separate issues — the more experienced Nets are physically pounding the Raptors; Toronto can’t protect the ball, again committing way too many turnovers in Game 3; the officials are either incompetent, blind or tilting in the Nets’ favour; and the Raps don’t seem to have an answer for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who combined for 47 points.
“No game is perfect, but you want to come as close to it as possible,” Pierce said. “And by no means did we close the game like we wanted to. We had a big lead and then we didn’t execute on the offensive end. We had bad fouls. 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 are trying to do. “Teams get better, and if you go to the next round, you can’t afford those mistakes. So it’s best that we take care of them now.”
Brooklyn continued to hit shots, responding to every Raptors run. Again, it was the trio of Johnson, Pierce and Williams leading the way for the Nets.
It’s really cool when they nearly let a 15-point lead crumble to dust in three minutes, right? Defensively, the Nets did a solid job containing DeMar DeRozan after a hot start, and Jonas Valanciunas did considerably less damage with five fouls. Kyle Lowry only got hot late, despite an injury in the first quarter. Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce hit clutch free throws. What was a solid “A” effort in the first 44 minutes was nearly lost completely. The Nets get out of this one with a win, in spite of their play in crunch time. That’s not something you say about them often.
“I wasn’t really cursing or anything like that,” he said. “I was just saying he (Brooklyn’s Deron Williams) pushed me off a little bit and they called a tech. That’s just the way it is. I take responsibility. It was in a tough situation but it’s part of the game.” The financial implications of going off publicly on referees and that Vasquez technical were enough to keep everyone quiet. “I like my money, but I’ve got to go back and look at the tape on those kinds of calls,” said Casey. “It was the difference in the game. They’re a great team, we give them credit and respect them, but let’s let the game be dictated by that. “I had a different view of them, evidently, than those guys (the officials) did.” Added Vasquez: “I don’t want to talk about the referees. I don’t want to lose any money at all, so next question. The referees are going to sleep fine . . . I’m not going to go to sleep, because we lost.”
How much did a series of questionable late-game calls derail Toronto’s comeback bid? “I mean, is that something new,” Patrick Patterson asked rhetorically on the heels of Friday’s 102-98 loss to Brooklyn, giving the Nets a 2-1 series advantage. It’s not the first time he’s made this point. It’s not the first time he’s had to. “In regards to calls not going our way or us feeling a certain way about referees, it has been taking place all year long,” he continued. “For us to think it is going to change in the playoffs, we are fooling ourselves.” The Raptors were making one final push, flirting with what would have been another unlikely comeback – which has become something of a specialty – when a couple of poor calls shifted the attention from their wretched play to the men in grey.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey was asked what he thought about the foul and technical called on Vasquez. Casey wanted to avoid criticizing the officiating, which has become a bit of a theme during this first-round series. “Again, I like my money,” Casey said. “But I’ve got to go back and look at the tape. Those kind of calls broke our back. It was the difference in the game. “Again, they’re a great team, give them credit. We respect them, but let’s let the game be dictated by that. I’ve got to go back and see what the calls were. I had a different view of them evidently as those guys did.”
Joe Johnson was filthy in this game. He had 11 points in the fourth quarter and 29 points overall on 11-of-17 from the field. He was the best scorer on the floor all game long and the Raptors didn’t really have an answer for him most of the night. Whether he was attacking the basket or freeing himself up for the jumper, he got into the space he needed to get a good shot off.
When it comes to the debate around the NBA’s age limit, forward Amir Johnson holds a unique place. Back in 2005, Johnson was chosen out of Westchester High School in Los Angeles with the 56th pick, by the Detroit Pistons. After that year, the league raised its age requirements, effectively ending the practice of drafting players out of high school. That makes Johnson the last NBA player drafted out of high school. “I am the Jeopardy question,” he says now. “Who is Amir Johnson?”
Behind a career-best 22.7 scoring average, DeMar DeRozan gave the Toronto Raptors their first All-Star representative since Chris Bosh took his final trip north of the border in 2010. Kyle Lowry (17.9 points, 7.4 assists) should have been their second. Instead, the bulldog point guard has shifted his focus to guiding the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2008.
Then there is the Joe Johnson question: DeRozan has no chance against him in the post (and has been bad in general on defense so far), and the Raps dusted off Landry Fields to take the Johnson assignment in Game 2. But Fields can’t shoot, and really doesn’t even want to, and it’s not ideal to give a long, reaching Brooklyn team a wing defender it doesn’t have to guard. If Toronto’s offense nose-dives with Fields, we could see John Salmons again (sorry, Toronto fans!). Dwane Casey might even experiment with using one of his bigs — Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson, logging more time together than usual — on Johnson, shifting a wing player to Paul Pierce. That would carry other consequences, and the Nets figure to hit some of the open 3s they’re generating via Joe Johnson pick-and-rolls and other goodies
All-NBA Playoff Team: Week One