BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- A late-showing Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett both spoke in hushed tones, simultaneously confused and disappointed with their team's performance. They'd blown a chance to take a dominating 3-1 series lead in a close game against the Toronto Raptors, shooting 3-17 in the fourth quarter and going without a field goal on their final 11 possessions en route to a crushing 87-79 loss at Barclays Center.
Throughout the season, the Nets have leaned on their crunch-time scoring and ability to close games late. In the calendar year 2014, they went 16-8 in games defined as "close & late" by the NBA (within five points with under five minutes), fifth-best in the league, and an Eastern-Conference best 7-2 at home. Between Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams, they had a bevy of reliable weapons that could create a shot with the game on the line.
But the final six minutes were akin to a performance piece of switched narratives: the Nets looked like the tense, inexperienced first-timers, and the Raptors the seasoned veterans with complete control. Brooklyn shot 0-6 in the final six minutes with four turnovers, three of them offensive fouls by veterans Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, and the Raptors turned a four-point deficit into an eight-point victory behind four field goals from four different players and four free throws.
"Very disappointing," Deron Williams amidst a cloud of reporters, a sentiment Garnett later echoed.
The loss is a tough one for Brooklyn to swallow: A win would have put Brooklyn up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series with one more game at home, but the series is now tied at 2-2 with possibly two more games on the road at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. A Game 5 win would swing the series drastically: in NBA history, teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won the series 85.9% of the time.
The Nets have shot significantly better at home all year: they're second-best in the league at three-point shooting in their own building. But they shot poorly from three-point range for the third time in four games, hitting just 4 of 20 threes, and missed ten free throws in an eight-point loss.
"I thought if we put some plays together, we put the ball in the basket in the fourth quarter, we make it a game," Garnett said in the locker room after the game. "But we weren't able to do that tonight. And we've got to make our free throws. I think we missed ten tonight. Shooting 65% for the series. You take those ten points, we lost by whatever it was, but ten points really means a lot, especially in a series when you're trying to take advantage of home. It's the small things that add up during a series."
Brooklyn's vaunted backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, much-promoted by the franchise upon arrival and much-maligned since for underperformance, combined for just 17 points on 6-19 shooting with seven turnovers (five by Williams). To compare, Toronto's backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and a hobbled Kyle Lowry scored 24 and 22 points, respectively.
"I know I've got to be more aggressive," Williams said after the game. "I think Joe's probably thinking the same thing. In the last three quarters, I wasn't really a factor. ... That's on me. I've just got to play better."
I'm not sure which is more damning: that Williams shot 0-4 with two turnovers in the fourth quarter, or that Johnson played eight and a half minutes in the fourth without shooting once. Johnson was the recipient of numerous double-teams which kept him out of his rhythm, but he also did not record an assist.
The Raptors built a 17-point lead in the first half, slicing through Brooklyn's porous bench pick-and-roll defense and getting easy shots at the rim for Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan hit the 20-point mark with four minutes left to go in the second quarter, and it looked like the Nets were headed to a blowout.
But some key playmaking to end the first half cut the lead to seven, and the Nets erased the rest of the lead behind 10 points from Paul Pierce and a defensive stand that limited the Raptors to just 4-21 shooting in the third quarter.
"It has nothing to do with the game," coach Jason Kidd said of the team's first-half woes. "We took the lead in the third. So there's two different halves being played. We don't like to dig a hole like that at home or any point, but I thought the guys responded at halftime, we took the lead, and we were going in the right direction, we just couldn't finish it off."
Next up: The Nets will practice Tuesday before heading to Toronto for Wednesday night's game, which will either be at 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM depending on the result of other games. The game will broadcast on My9.