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Here's a roundup of last night's Nets festivities.
What happened: In a wild, back-and-forth contest, the Nets executed down the stretch and ended up on top, beating the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors 101-97 on their home court.
Where they stand: This was a crucial game for playoff positioning; the Nets improve to 32-30 on the season, moving to just a half-game behind the Washington Wizards for fifth seed and 3 games behind the Raptors for the Atlantic Division lead.
The Nets also evened the season series with the Raptors at two games apiece, which could make a big difference: should the Nets and Raptors end the season with identical records, the next tiebreaker is their division record. The Nets are 7-5 in the division with four games left against Atlantic Division opponents, the Raptors are 8-3 with five games left.
Three measly games separate the third and sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference, and the Nets could face Toronto, Chicago, or Washington if they stay in that range.
That Was... A beautiful, chippy setup in a playoff atmosphere for a potential Eastern Conference playoff matchup. After the crunch-time debacle that ended the last game between these two teams -- "We gave it away. that's what we did, we gave it away," said Mason Plumlee -- the Nets executed down the stretch, got stops, forced Kyle Lowry & teammates into bad decisions, hit shots of their own, and closing out a solid win against the class of the Atlantic Division.
This was a huge game, and even though Jason Kidd said it's just one of an 82-game season, his players knew the implications, and played it accordingly.
The Turning Point:
Brooklyn's Backcourt hasn't gone off much in tandem; you'll often hear the phrase used derisively, as an indicator of the team's bountiful spending spree on two players who have underperformed in a Nets uniform. But for a brief stretch in the third quarter, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson led a huge run, hitting four three-pointers in rapid succession to turn what was a 12-point deficit into a lead.
Williams felt he was fouled on his first three, which led to him celebrating on his second. Without this stretch, the Nets don't win this game.
Williams finished the game with 18 points, tying Shaun Livingston for the team-high, and Johnson added 14 of his own.
Game Grades: Read 'em here. No, really: fans chanted "U-S-A" at the Raptors in the waning seconds.
With the game tied at 94 and the ball in Brooklyn's hands, Pierce and Deron Williams traded off attacking the basket before Williams found Pierce behind the three-point line. Pierce, well-contested by Kyle Lowry, buried the go-ahead jumper, putting the Nets up for good.
Pierce wasn't even supposed to play, but told Kidd earlier in the day he was good to go, and finished with 15 points and a team-high four steals.
Pierce said that the play was originally designed to get the ball in either Williams's or Joe Johnson's hands, but that he's always prepared for those moments. "I think it's just confidence," he said. "I've been that way since I was two years old, so I can't help it."
Upon thinking of himself as a toddler burying clutch shots, Pierce laughed. I asked him how many game-winners he hit at two years old. "I remember my first game-winner," he responded, "at eight months old. And it just grew from there."
Paul Pierce on the crowd: "It was unbelievable, man. Now we know. Brooklyn fans, you can't go below that anymore. That's the expectations. Our crowd was unbelievable tonight, probably the best I've heard them all year long. It was a playoff atmosphere, they were into it from start to finish, and I really feed off those type of crowds. It brings energy, it brings momentum to our ballclub, and we love it."
He's 100% right. Brooklyn, you've set a baseline. Stick to it.
The game's most incredible display of athleticism:
Shout out to the line kid, who saw six-foot-ten human being Tyler Hansbrough barreling towards him and had the wherewithal to not go deer-in-headlights and get the hell out of the way. Shout out to referee Eric Lewis for his vertical leap, too.
Pick-and-rolled on: The Raptors got out to a hot start, taking a 12-4 lead and maintaining it until the last few minutes of the first half, when some strong play from Shaun Livingston, Mason Plumlee, and Alan Anderson slowly drew them back into it.
The Raptors abused the Nets in pick-and-roll situations in the first half, getting easy looks by forcing subpar Nets defenders into switches. Without Kirilenko (and Garnett, somewhat), the Nets lack two of their best pick-and-roll big defenders, and Mirza Teletovic & Andray Blatche just couldn't carry the load, particularly with all-around star Kyle Lowry creating offense for himself and others.
It got to the point where Mason Plumlee -- who may be the team's best big defender in lateral, pick-and-roll situations -- was putting a hand in Lowry's face as far as 28 feet from the basket in an effort to cut him off.
My Thoughts At The Half: Who would've thought two summers ago that Brooklyn's Backcourt would be Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson?
This was Williams's fourth foul on the night, and it was one of many questionable calls by the referees on both ends of the floor. The fans, ahem, reacted.
The Difference: Brooklyn's first 31 games: 10-21. Brooklyn's last 31 games: 22-9.
Andray Blatche, Making Ian Eagle & Jim Spanarkel Batty:
I don't know which part of this move is better: the fact that it tied the game at 94 in crunch time, the way it made Jim Spanarkel sound like you just told him a dirty joke, the "Dray Live!" that it elicited from Ian Eagle, or the fact that Blatche shook two decent defenders out of their shoes and still put down a tough shot inside.
Hybridity breeds contempt: Kyle Lowry admitted that the Nets lineup gave the Raptors trouble. "Their lineup is funky, man," he said after the game. "When you have Paul Pierce at the four it is tough to guard."
Kirilenkout, Garnoutt: Andrei Kirilenko sprained his right ankle Monday night in the first quarter of the team's 104-89 victory, telling The Brooklyn Game in the locker room that he'd probably need a couple of days and "hopes" to play against Miami Wednesday. He did some work on the bike to stay loose during the game.
Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett was a surprise late scratch for the Nets, having been penciled into the starting lineup. The team announced Garnett was out at 7:34, just minutes before tipoff. Garnett has fought back spasms and hasn't played since February 27th. Garnett headed home at halftime.
Rebounding from rebounding: The Nets didn't get killed on the glass tonight, a fact that surprised Jason Kidd during his press conference. They were only out-rebounded by seven, 37-30, and only forced 16 turnovers. But they turned those 16 turnovers into 18 points, including a game-saving steal by Shaun Livingston.
Locker Room Language: One member of the media accidentally called Andray Blatche "Mason" upon beginning his questioning. "What!?" Blatche said jokingly, causing the media member to repeat the beginning of his question slowly. "No, before that!" Blatche said, smiling, before the media member realized the mistake and apologized. Funny scene.
Across the river: The Knicks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, who entered the game on a 16-game losing streak, by the final score of 123-110. It was not a game that they led wire to wire, and in that sense, they failed. The Knicks are now 25-40 and now just three games behind the free-falling Atlanta Hawks for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Next up: The Nets have one day off to travel before taking on the NBA defending champion Miami Heat in Miami, who they've beaten twice at home this season.