TORONTO, ON. -- The series was over, but Paul Pierce hadn't left the court yet. He wasn't ready. Not after his late-game theatrics had once again decided the game, and this time, the series. Not after the way Raptors fans treated him and his teammates for 48 minutes. Pierce was the last holdout among Nets players on the floor in Air Canada Centre, and he gave as good as he got.
With the dispirited but still raucous sellout crowd giving him one last taste of Toronto's finest jeers, Pierce smiled. He bowed. He blew them kisses. The Raptors and their fans helped set the stage for seven games of madness, and this was Pierce soaking in every second of his Game 7 curtain call, following a virtuosic series performance that began and ended with his villainous heroics.
"It feels so much better when you do it on the road," Pierce said about the series win, with a smile at the podium, one of two Nets players to earn the national television treatment. "Because you know you earned it. Everybody's against you. I can't even say some of the things they were calling me out there."
"To come away with a win, it means so much more, because you know you gave everything. You were against not only the 15,000 in the building, but you were against the other 15,000 that sat outside. Nobody's with you."
It almost seemed like destiny. With the Nets up 104-103 and seven seconds left, Shaun Livingston, who had just hit two big free throws, threw a pass with a confounding high trajectory to Pierce. Terrence Ross, the superbly athletic Raptors guard that had drawn Pierce as his assignment, picked it out of the air, whipped it off Pierce's shin, and set up the Raptors for one more shot to win the series.
The Raptors, who trusted guard Kyle Lowry throughout the series, went to him one more time to lead them to their first Game 7 win in franchise history. Lowry split Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams in a pick-and-roll, fumbled the ball into the middle of the lane, and flung a floater upwards. Pierce, only in the lane as a small/long-ball power forward to guard the 6'9" Patrick Patterson, got his hand directly on the shot, swatting it away as time ran out on Toronto's season.
"I happened to be in the right place at the right time," Pierce said of the block. "I saw him split the defenders, I saw him go up, I went up with him, got my hand on the ball, game over."
"I'm not even aware of what I did," Garnett added when asked about his own performance. "I just remember the last play, to be honest."
The Nets poured on the offense early, behind a surprise 14 first-half points from backup Marcus Thornton, and took a 61-53 lead into the second half. Joe Johnson, the man much-maligned for his contract but able to score from seemingly anywhere in the half-court, led the team with 26 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. (Full Game Grades Here.)
They'll now go to Miami to face the defending champion Miami Heat, who are well-rested after sweeping their first-round matchup against the Charlotte Bobcats. The Nets swept the Heat in four regular season games, but their players and coach spoke unanimously: the playoffs are a brand new season, and none of their past accomplishments matter. It's now a second season of four.
But all that could've been fantasy without Pierce, who not only closed Game 7 but kicked off the series with three crunch-time shots and a now-famous boast in Game 1. "Paul said it best," coach Jason Kidd said matter-of-factly. "That's why he's here."
On May 4, 2013, Gerald Wallace cursed under his breath at his locker before beckoning a trainer to help him ice his body. He was despondent after his Brooklyn Nets lost a 99-93 Game 7 heartbreaker to the Chicago Bulls, wasting home-court advantage, losing their shot at the Miami Heat, and sending the franchise reeling into a frantic rebuilding mode.
Exactly one year later, with the Nets two seeding spots lower and three future Hall-of-Famers deeper, Jason Kidd danced with Deron Williams, the bench exploded in happiness at the buzzer, and at the end, there was Pierce, giving peace signs to deflated fans as he walked through their tunnel. Next stop: Miami.
That's why he's here.
- Through four regular season games and seven playoff games: Nets 1,070, Raptors 1,070. It can't be overstated how tight this series was, and how close these two teams were: This could've very easily gone either way. The Nets were excellent in crunch time, but also fortunate.
- Jason Kidd on Joe Johnson playing 45 minutes: “I shortchanged him three minutes. He owes me three minutes."
- Garnett on Johnson: "Joe Jesus, I told you. Cooler than the other side of the pillow."
- DeMar DeRozan was apparently battling the flu. Deron Williams sounded sick at his locker room after the game. In the immortal words of Jason Kidd, we'll see how he feels tomorrow.
- Nobody was more crushed by the ending than Lowry, who lay on the floor motionless while DeRozan gave him a hug and words of encouragement. After the game, he stared off in the distance in the Raptors locker room, unable to speak to the media for about 45 minutes. He played about as hard as any human could in this series. According to James Herbert of ESPN, Paul Pierce apparently found him after the game and told him "you're an animal, dog."
- Nobody in ACC drew more ire from Raptors fans than Kevin Garnett. A fan on the jumbotron before the game: “We can’t wait to send KG and Brooklyn back home.” His friend: “What he said. Send KG home." Garnett had nothing but positive things to say about the Raptors and their fans, pouring on the praise twice unprovoked. When reminded they chanted "KG SUCKS!" at him, Garnett laughed. "That's all good. They can't boo you if they don't know you. It's a compliment."
- Shaun Livingston, normally eloquent and clean, distilling the series into three words: "heart, grit, and balls."