Casey said he feared his team would not come out with the requisite energy on Friday, given that the Nets would be playing to save their season. This transcended the nervousness of youth; the Raptors were simply flat. Amir Johnson was dreadful; Valanciunas got in early foul trouble and was outplayed by Kevin Garnett; Kyle Lowry did not come close to matching his exploits on Wednesday — he made four of his 16 shots — and the Raptors got nothing from their bench. The Nets scored more often than the Raptors in the paint, and committed fewer turnovers. This was about the defence, though, which is the worry. They could not stop Brooklyn to end Wednesday’s game, and the defensive holes were just as vast on Friday. “If we’re consistently following the game plan, we can do it,” Valanciunas said. “We can defend. Sometimes that game plan, we just miss [it]. We’re just not there. We just miss one second. We’re not in the right place, where we should be.”
This is the kind of exuberance you get when you’ve finally stomped someone. The first five games of this series were won by whichever team made the biggest plays under pressure, but after the Raptors were outscored 44-24 in the fourth quarter of their Game 5 win, you could see the gap from the tip in Game 6. Brooklyn attacked the basket, attacked the boards, attacked Toronto. Worse, the Raptors had no response. It was a 15-point lead after one quarter, 19 at the half. It never dipped below 10. “It was just a tough game,” said Amir Johnson, a bellwether in this series, who had four points and five rebounds. “It’s tough to come in here and win three in a row. They were more desperate, man. They came out with a better sense of urgency. We didn’t match it. I just felt like it was all energy. I feel like we beat ourselves.” “It seemed like the more and more we tried, the ball would always bounce away,” said Toronto forward Patrick Patterson.
Nnone of the Raptors could be remotely happy with their efforts. Their head coach certainly wasn’t. “I thought they came out in a desperate mood and we didn’t,” Casey said after a 97-83 Brooklyn win that tied the series 3-3 and forced a Game 7 back in Toronto on Sunday. “They did what they were supposed to do and we didn’t start to play that way until we got knocked down in the second half,” Casey said. “That’s what the playoffs is about. Your start probably tells you how you’re going to finish.” Defensively, the entire Raptors roster was AWOL for most of the first half as the Nets put together a 60-point attack in the first two quarters and took a 19-point lead into the locker room at the half. The Raps made a couple of stabs at a run in the final 24 minutes, getting what at one point was a 26-point deficit down to 10 with just less than three minutes remaining, but never really threatened the Nets early lead.
On Friday night the lesson was you can’t play really poorly and expect to win any game, particularly an elimination game against a team like the Nets, who have been assembled at the expense of an NBA-record $200-million to challenge for a championship this season. “I was concerned about [what would happen] tonight,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “Any Game 6 a team is going to come out with a desperate mindset, this team [the Nets] is built to win a championship this year and they were going to come out and give you their best shot. I knew that coming in and I tried to warn our team.” They didn’t pay attention.
For a brief, fleeting moment, Casey’s team played the unfamiliar role of favourites, up 3-2 in the series, and it wasn’t a good look for them. From the moment Rudy Gay was traded they’ve fancied themselves underdogs. It’s what brought them together, it’s what motivates them. Without that built-in adversity, they were unrecognizable. The Nets opened the game with the fight you would expect from a team on the ropes and for whatever reason, Toronto was unable to match it. The Raptors were flat offensively and showed little-to-no resistance on defence. Brooklyn outscored the Raptors 22-4 in the paint, out-rebounded them 14-4 and shot an impressive 68 per cent from the field. They moved the ball, got in the lane at will and controlled the tempo of the game from the jump, while the Raptors could barely get into their offensive sets. “It just comes down to who wants it more,” DeMar DeRozan had said the day prior. On Friday it was all Brooklyn.
“Tonight,” said coach Jason Kidd, “we took control.” The Nets followed up their mammoth quarter in Game 5 with the second-highest scoring quarter of the series to start Game 6 on Friday night. The Raptors didn’t lose Game 6. The Nets won it — and big. It was the first time either team dominated the other from start to finish. So what now? It’s hard to believe a 10-year drought without a second round of playoffs in a city so sports-crazy — something that almost no city with professional sporting franchises has had to endure — is about to end. It’s hard to believe that can happen now. The Raptors seemed to be that ticket — we wanted them to be that ticket. These tough, resilient, likeable, trending, young athletic Raptors, turning on a non-basketball market to basketball, doing the unlikely and the exciting and the incredible on so many nights. But last night, they were just incredulous. “We didn’t respond,” said coach Dwane Casey, but even if they did respond, did they have enough to counteract what the Nets were doing to them?
Sunday’s contest will be the fourth deciding game in Raptors franchise history — they beat New York and lost to Philadelphia in 2001, and lost to Detroit in 2002 — and will be the first one ever to be played in Toronto. It is sure to be played before an electrified crowd at the Air Canada Centre. “We all grew up watching Game 7s and want to be a part of Game 7s,” said Kyle Lowry. “We’ve still got to go out there and not be too overanxious. We’ve still got to go out there and do what we need to do. “Me personally, I’m not going to be all amped up. It’s going to be a game that we have to go home and win.” To do that, they will have to be exponentially better than they were in Game 6, when the Nets blitzed them in a dominant first half and won somewhat easily.
“I know I needed to be more aggressive after the last two losses,” Williams admitted at the podium after the win, one of his few happy podium games in two years. “The three games we’ve won, I’ve been really aggressive, getting into the paint, making things happen. Not only scoring the ball, but making the extra pass. I know that’s what my team needs me to do, and so I wanted to come out early and establish that.”
In the hours before Game 6 began, a fan put up a missing person sign with Williams’ face on it on the Atlantic Avenue side of the arena. It was a fitting dig at the way the star guard had played over the previous two games — both losses for the Nets with Williams spending most of them as a well-paid spectator on the floor. That certainly wasn’t the case Friday, though, as Williams gave the Nets exactly the kind of aggressive, engaged performance they desperately needed to keep their season alive. Williams also dominated his matchup with Kyle Lowry, a reversal of Game 5 when Lowry torched him for 36 points. This time, the Nets held Lowry to 11 points on dismal 4-for-16 shooting from the field, including 2-for-7 from 3-point range. “That’s why you read it in the bathroom,” a smiling Nets coach Jason Kidd said of the criticism of his point guard leading up to Game 6. “We’re professional, and everybody has a right to their opinion, and it just shows what type of player and what he is all about. “He stood up to whatever was said and he responded with one of his best games.”
The crooked numbers were concerning enough, but coupled with the 44-point fourth quarter conceded by the Raptors in Toronto on Wednesday, it is hard not to think it is panic time. Even if head coach Dwane Casey refuses to agree. “To listen to some of this (media talk), we might as well not play Game 7. Every game is different … and I know our team will bounce back,” Casey said. But there will be a lot of cleaning up to do to make sure that happens. Suddenly, a team that ranked in the top 10 defensively for months is guarding like one of the NBA’s dregs. All of the defensive pride that had built up has now been deflated. To be fair, we already heard the air hissing out down the stretch of the regular season, but we figured injuries and human nature (looking ahead to the playoffs) were a big part of that. Now we know that, in actuality, something appears to be seriously wrong with Casey’s group.
In a game in which they should’ve been raring to go, the Raps came out brutally flat. This wasn’t nerves, just a lack of effort and discipline — the fact that they were out-rebounded 24-14 in the first-half was illustrative of that. The Nets, with all the pressure in the world heaped upon their shoulders, and the entire NBA ready to bathe in sweet schadenfreude had they lost, came out looking fresh and full of energy. In fact, they looked a little like a team that had scored 44 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5. The Raps just had no answers.
The pressure was on the Brooklyn Nets, who entered Friday night down 3-2 in their first round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors. Meaning, win or stay home; season over, see you next year. Well, the Nets were not messing around on Friday night, and Andray Blatche’s “guarantee” came true in a big statement game, as the Nets evened up the series at 3-3, winning 97-83, and sending it to a Game 7 on Sunday in Toronto. Deron Williams came up big for the Nets.
“We guarantee we’re going to go there and take care of business and go to Miami,” Blatche said of Sunday’s Game 7 in Toronto not long after Brooklyn dispatched the Raptors in Game 6 on Friday.
The decision to sit Shaun Livingston for Alan Anderson was a curious one at the forefront, but it’s one that made a lot of sense. Livingston has struggled in this serious both with shooting fouls and turnovers, and his involvement in the game allows the Raptors to more freely double-team Joe Johnson because of his lack of perimeter shooting. The Raptors have to respect Anderson’s outside shot, even though he missed both of his attempts tonight, and that changes the space on the floor.
“Yeah,” he said, speaking casually, with a hint of realization. “Yeah. We guarantee it. We’re going to go there, take care of business, and go to Miami.” Blatche dominated the game for stretches at a time, controlling the glass and hitting four of eight shots en route to a bench-high eight points, seven rebounds, and two surprising blocked shots, both coming in the first quarter. In typically enigmatic Blatche fashion, he was most effective at his most boring, and wildly inconsistent when he tried to stretch the boundaries of his ability. “I was just staying around the rim, being aggressive,” Blatche reeled off. In his best moments, he floated from block to block, setting screens, looking to attack the glass on both ends, and playing within the team’s defensive scheme.
On the brink of elimination, played about as well as you can imagine for 36 minutes, lopped off for about six, and closed it out behind their stars. Game 7 awaits in Toronto.
Dwane hit on a very significant point in his post-game session with all of us when he was talking about the dominant first half the Nets threw at them. “They played faster, they got up and down the floor, they didn’t go with as many postups with Joe Johnson the way they did (Wednesday). They got us on our heels early.” I don’t know how many times in the first quarter that the Nets were able to get good shots, almost all of them at the rim, by pushing the ball down the floor and creating effective early offence. It did get the Raptors on their heels, it didn’t allow them to stop the ball and force the Nets to execute late into the shotclock. How many times did a ball-handler get some space, get into the lane, draw a slow – very slow rotation from a big – and dump the ball off for an easy basket. Quickness was supposed to be a Raptors advantage, it wasn’t at any time last night.
“Any Game 6, a team is going to come out with a desperate mindset,” Casey said. “This team they built to win a championship this year. They’re going to come out and give you their best shot. . . knew that coming in and tried to warn our team. “Guys who haven’t been in Game 6 before, it’s one of the toughest things to do. Again, experience is the best teacher. Now we’re going into Game 7, it’s our first time at that. Luckily we have it at home.”
“I thought Deron showed a lot of heart, a lot of grit,” center Kevin Garnett said. “I’d like to use another word but I can’t. For the most part I thought he showed great leadership in coming out playing aggressive. He was beat up a little bit but he sucked it up and my hat goes off to him. He could have taken another route, but that’s our leader.” Added forward Joe Johnson: “He gutted it out. Obviously he battled ankle problems all year. It was a pivotal moment.”
“Any Game 6, a team is going to come out with a desperate mindset. This team [the Nets], they’re built to win the championship this year and they’re going to come out and give you their best shot,” Casey said. “I knew that coming in and tried to warn our team, but [we have] guys who haven’t been in Game 6. “It’s one of the toughest things to do.” The stage only gets bigger for the Raptors. Toronto has three players in its starting five playing in their first postseason. The Nets, on the other hand, boast veterans with championship mettle in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Raptors franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001 and has never won a seven-game series.
“It’s going to be fun,” said forward Paul Pierce, who scored 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting in 24 minutes. “This is what the NBA is all about – these pressure type moments. These are the types of games that elevate the good players to great players. We have so many of them coming up this weekend. It’s an exciting time, and we’re going to enjoy it. It’s a hostile environment – win or go home. Hey, this is the type of situation that I love and want to be in. I love our chances.”
oronto allowed the Nets to shoot a blistering 68 percent in the first quarter and fell behind as many as 16 in the opening 12 minutes. Things mostly got worse from there in a 97-83 loss to the Nets. Afterward, Casey bemoaned the fact that his Raptors came out flat on defense — just as they had in the fourth quarter of Game 5. “We started the game out in an opposite disposition that we wanted to,” the coach said. “They came out in a desperate mode and we didn’t. They did what they were supposed to do and we didn’t.” Game 7 is Sunday in Toronto. And if the Raptors want to reach the second round for just the second time in franchise history, they’ll have to find a way to slow down Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and the Nets. “We’ve got to find a way to match their intensity,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said.
And oh yeah, then they play Jay while showing Drake on the big screen. Drake didn’t look pleased. This series is getting NICE — Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM)
The Nets kept up the offensive pressure all night, continuing to work through Johnson in the post and in the middle of the floor, attack Toronto’s doubles and traps with quick ball movement and work to get high-percentage looks, outscoring the Raptors 48-32 in the paint and shooting 63.2 percent in the lane. “We knew that they were going to double Joe a lot,” Pierce said after the game. “So we swung the ball and we said, ‘Let’s not settle for the 3-point shot. Let’s drive on the second swing of the ball and get to the paint, try to get layups,’ and I thought we did.”
The Kyle Lowry revolution won’t stop until his face is on all Canadian currency. Does Canada use stamps? Put him on the stamps too. Does Canada have a military? Make him a five-star general, because … Kyle. Lowry. Is. Not. Scared. That’s what we’ve learned from the Raptors this season. In the playoffs, we’ve learned that nothing in the regular season was a fluke.
The Raptors matter in town. All you need to see is the swell of fans on game nights outside of the Air Canada Center, watching on the big-screen TV in the spring chill. Inside, the Raptors have been busy doing a number on the Nets, taking a 3-2 series lead. If you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like when $189 million — the cost of the Nets this season — falls to the floor, we’re probably about to find out. One more victory against the Nets, and the Raptors will take another unexpected step in a season initially designed to be a rebuilding year. It would also give them a shot at the two-time defending champion Heat — and, by extension, a higher profile in these playoffs. Suddenly, everyone will know a bit more about an under-the-radar team fighting for appreciation, if not respect. That’s the thing about the Raptors. Even now, we still don’t know if they’re actually pretty good, or just pretty fortunate to take advantage of the watered-down East.
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