NEW YORK — By night's end, it seemed like everybody in a red jersey was limping, battered and bruised. But the Toronto Raptors are still standing, still very much alive and kicking — and punching, and scratching, and clawing — and headed back to Canada having regained home-court advantage after an 87-79 win over the Brooklyn Nets that tied their first-round series at two games apiece.
Kyle Lowry often appeared to be working off one leg after bruising his right knee during Friday's Game 3 loss. Amir Johnson went down in a heap, clutching his left knee after a failed mid-third-quarter attempt to take a charge on a Paul Pierce drive. Patrick Patterson began cramping up and needed to exit the game. DeMar DeRozan has "been playing with stitches in my [right] hand for the last couple, three, four weeks."
And yet, facing the prospect of a 3-1 deficit that would give the veteran-laden Nets three chances to eliminate them from the postseason, the Raptors did just enough to make sure they'll see a Game 6 back here in Brooklyn. It wasn't pretty — Toronto shot 41.3 percent from the floor, made just six of 23 3-point tries, and missed 20 of 23 field-goal attempts over a 15-plus-minute stretch that spanned the second and third quarters — but it provided the desired result.
"That's our team, man," Lowry said after the game. "We've got a full team of guys who just want to win."
None more than Lowry, the 28-year-old igniter who popped for 22 points on 7-for-17 shooting, four rebounds and two assists in 34 minutes of work despite clearly favoring his wounded knee from the opening tip. He didn't have quite the same explosion or athleticism he's showcased all season, but the tough-minded point guard picked his spots and found the balance between aggression and prudence late in the game, making pivotal plays on both ends of the floor despite playing the final 6:37 with five fouls.
"He's matured so many ways," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after evening the series. "Last year, two years ago [at] this time, he probably couldn't have played with five fouls. He would have gotten so frustrated that we would have taken him out. But he's more mature, he's more focused. […] He's dealing with a lot right now, and he came through with flying colors."
He's matured, yes, but the passion that's boiled over at times in previous stops still ran hot enough that Casey didn't dare consider giving his ailing triggerman the hook late in the contest.
"We probably would have got in a fight if I tried to take him out of the game," Casey said with a smile.
Instead, Lowry took the fight to the Nets. After a live-ball turnover by reserve point guard Greivis Vasquez, Pierce sprinted (or, y'know, "sprinted") down the floor looking for an easy deuce that would draw the Nets within two points with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. But Lowry chased him down and picked his pocket with a perfectly timed open-court poke that thwarted Pierce's run-out. A minute later, Lowry took a high screen from Johnson and drove right, making a beeline for the bucket before lofting a running hook shot over the outstretched arm of future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett to push Toronto's lead to six with 1:13 remaining.
"I think that was the first time this year [I've used the hook] in a game," Lowry said. "I did it in practice like once. It's something I work on in the summertime — I'm being honest. It just happened. It came into a situation where it was needed. Kevin Garnett is 6-foot-11, you know; he's a guy who can block shots and I felt like that's a shot I can go to.
"I knew I was going to make it," Lowry added. "I felt I was going to make it. I took the shot to be aggressive. It looked good. It felt good."
It was good, and it all but slammed the door on a Nets team that had clawed back from a 17-point first-half deficit to lead at the midway point of the fourth quarter before going ice-cold down the stretch, failing to score a point over the final four minutes and 58 seconds.
"When we ran our plays, when we got movement, we seemed to score most of the time," said Pierce, who finished with a Nets-high 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting, including a 3-for-7 mark from 3-point land, to go with five rebounds, two assists and a steal. "I just thought we got out of our offense, and that can't happen in the playoffs."
The Nets struggled to score all night thanks to a Raptors defense intent on flustering and minimizing Joe Johnson. The seven-time All-Star entered Sunday averaging 23.7 points per game on 60.5 percent shooting in the series, but in Game 4 the Raptors brought quick double-teams, aggressive traps and different one-on-one matchups whenever Johnson touched the ball, holding him to just seven points on seven shot attempts.
"We just scramble," DeRozan said. "We understand [Johnson is] going to kick it out of double-teams. We're scrambling to get out to [Deron Williams], to get out there to their shooters. It's a constantly thing on the defensive end. It's not just Joe. It's everybody else as well."
That scrambling, aggressive approach seemed to catch Brooklyn off-guard throughout the night, leading to ill-timed miscues that helped provide the Raptors enough opportunities to take control of the game despite their own offensive woes.
"It's got to come down to execution," Pierce said. "You can't have turnovers, especially in the fourth quarter."
The Nets turned it over six times in the final frame, with cough-ups on four consecutive possessions in the final three minutes, including offensive fouls on Joe Johnson, Garnett and Pierce that prevented Brooklyn from making it a one-possession game before Lowry's hook took the air out of Barclays Center.
Two of those charges were taken by the reedy DeRozan, who's not necessarily known for his defensive prowess when it comes to beating opposing offensive players to the spot. This prompted a reporter to ask if the two charges taken represented a career high. This made Lowry lean back and laugh very loudly.
"Nah," DeRozan said with a smile. "I don't think so. I hope it's not."
The third was drawn by power forward Johnson, who ate up the Nets front line in the pick-and-roll at the start of the game, scoring 11 first-quarter points to help stake Toronto to its big lead. His contributions were later limited by the combination of Pierce's pump-fake-and-go offense, fouls and the mid-third-quarter knee injury that sent him to the end of the bench until the final few minutes. But with the game in the balance, there he was, giving up his body to earn a whistle and get a stop.
"That's Amir, man," DeRozan said. "That's Iron Man right there, man, to be honest with you. He plays through it all. Knees, ankle, everything. He's not going to make one excuse. He's going to do whatever he can to help us win, and he did it tonight."
Toronto raced out to a 13-2 lead behind sharp early shooting, especially from DeRozan, who scored 20 of his game-high 24 points before halftime, along with smart pick-and-roll play and energetic work on the offensive glass. They continued punishing Brooklyn's steps-slow defense in the opening frame, rolling up a 35-22 advantage after 12 minutes on 61.9 percent shooting with just one turnover. ("Those 30-point quarters got to go in the playoffs," said Pierce, noting that the Nets allowed the Raptors to 32 points in the fourth quarter of Friday's Game 3.)
Brooklyn's defense tightened considerably late in the second quarter. With Garnett using his length, instincts and barking to stymy the Raptors' screen game, and Lowry sitting the final 4 1/2 minutes of the half after picking up his third foul, the Nets cut into Toronto's lead, heading into halftime down seven at 51-44. The Nets kept applying pressure after intermission, scoring the first eight points of the frame to make it a 22-4 quarter-spanning run that gave them their first lead of the night, 52-51.
The difficult contested jumpers that DeRozan drained before halftime suddenly stopped going down, and with Lowry's mobility and finishing compromised, Toronto scuffled to a dismal 4-for-21 shooting performance that steered the run of play Brooklyn's way. That is, until the Nets started squandering possessions of their own, in part by "taking bad shots instead of continuing to execute," according to Pierce, and in part by failing to maximize their trips to the free-throw line, where Brooklyn shot just 19 for 29 on the night, to let Toronto re-take the lead late in the third and head into the fourth all knotted up at 67.
From there, Toronto got several big shots and sharp passes from Vasquez, who finished with nine points, nine assists, six rebounds and a steal with just one turnover in 34 1/2 minutes of work, and just the right combination of defense and perfectly timed hook shots to put the Nets away.
"We are playing for our life, man," Vasquez said. "We are not satisfied with what we have. We want more."
Sunday's performance by Casey's barely walking wounded ensured that they'll get at least two more.
"We're really nicked up right now, so it was huge, and huge courage — a courageous game for those guys to come in and perform and play and still produce," Casey said.
The onus will be on the Nets — now needing two wins in three tries with two games coming at Air Canada Centre — to do likewise.
"We understand that this is a group that's not going to back down. They're not going to give up," Pierce said. "They're earning a lot of peoples' respect around the league. You know, just because you don't have a lot of playoff experience doesn't mean you're not a good team. [...] They're not going to go away, and we understand that."
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