Nets, Fighting Themselves, Squeeze Out Win

Andray Blatche
Andray Blatche (AP)
Andray Blatche
Andray Blatche & the Nets escaped with a 102-98 victory. (AP)

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Here’s Game 3’s festivities.

– Box Score –

With 5:02 left, Joe Johnson buried a three-pointer off of Deron Williams’s eighth and final assist, pushing the Nets lead to a game-high 15 points at 93-78.

Then, with 3.1 seconds left, the Nets relied on Joe Johnson to hit two free throws to add two points to a 100-98 lead.

Funny what five minutes can do.

In a game that looked like the Nets would cruise to the end, the Nets staved off a furious comeback from a hobbled Toronto Raptors squad, never quite relinquishing control but letting a 15-point lead dissipate before their two crunch-time weapons — Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce — each hit two free throws in the game’s final two possessions to swing Game 3 to Brooklyn, 102-98 in front of a late-showing but raucous crowd at Barclays Center.

“I think our fourth quarter was our worst defensive quarter, and that’s the second game in a row,” Williams said after the game. “They scored 32 points this game, 36 last game. That’s tough. … We were up 15, and we got to work on extending that and putting teams away, especially in our building.”

“I think we got a little lackadaisical,” Joe Johnson added.

The win puts the Nets up 2-1 in the series, maintaining home-court advantage after winning one game in Toronto and setting up an opportunity to go up 3-1 heading back to Toronto for Game 5. It almost wasn’t that way.

The Nets allowed a flurry of baskets in the final five minutes — six from five different players, to be exact — and did little to extend their own lead, hitting just one of five shots and missing four free throws in the final minute. Deron Williams, sublime until the last minute, missed three of his final four free throws, and a whirling and-one layup from DeMar DeRozan cut the lead to 97-96 with 34 seconds left.

“He’s human,” coach Jason Kidd said of Williams. “It happens. We’ve all been there before. Again, we got the win. Guys stepped up and made the free throws. He missed a couple but we still believe when he goes to the free throw line, he’s going to make the next one.”

Game Grades: Read ’em here.

One 43-minute half: For the first 43 minutes, the Nets looked like a dominant team: Paul Pierce made some key shots, Kevin Garnett roared to the crowd, Andray Blatche played as good a defensive game as he’s ever played, and in the third quarter, Joe Johnson & Deron Williams showed off an innate chemistry seen sparingly in Brooklyn in the last two seasons. The two combined for 51 points on 18-31 shooting.

“We had to learn to play with each other,” Williams admitted. “We’re two guys that, not to say we dominate the ball, but we have the ball in our hands a lot. So we’ve had to learn to share the ball, but also learn where each other is going to be. I think we have a great understanding of that right now.

“When Joe’s playing in the post, I know where the double-team’s coming from, where I need to be, so he knows where to find me. Same thing when I have the ball, I know where he’s going to be. It’s fun to play.”

The Nets came out strong, with Williams hitting two three-pointers off pretty feeds from Kevin Garnett and Shaun Livingston, and all looked well. Williams even had his killer crossover on display. Unfortunately, he Nets couldn’t manufacture points off turnovers, and DeMar DeRozan hit a few tough shots to highlight a listless first quarter.

The game got sloppier in the second quarter, with weird foul calls in both directions. The game finished with a combined 63 fouls and 74 free throw attempts, with both teams shooting 29-37. One technical foul on Greivis Vasquez drew the Raptors’ ire, particularly from Patrick Patterson. “I mean, is that something new?” Patterson asked. “In regards to calls not going our way, or us feeling a certain way about referees, it’s been taking place all year long. For us to think it’s going to change in the playoffs, we’re fooling ourselves.”

Patterson, who hit six of seven shots en route to a bench-high 17 points, missed two free throws with 19 seconds left and the Nets up 99-96.

The crowd gained momentum after a shake-and-dunk by Paul Pierce around Tyler Hansbrough, then went into an utter frenzy in appreciation after Kevin Garnett sacrificed his body for a loose ball. The Nets picked up a couple more slick plays in the half, most notably a killer Williams crossover and jumper, and the Nets entered the halftime break up four.

The good luck continued through the third quarter, first behind Joe Johnson’s offense (ten quick points), then watched as Paul Pierce’s offense and Andray Blatche’s defense closed out a 28-21 quarter. Yes, you read that right: Andray Blatche played some of the best defense of his career in that third quarter, forcing a steal, playing smart help defense in the paint, and even drawing a late charge on Kyle Lowry that was Lowry’s fourth foul. The quarter closed with a quintessential Pierce shot: a step-back jumper in the left corner to put the Nets up 77-66.

Thanks to the team’s total collapse in the final five minutes, all of that was nearly for naught. Luckily for them, Pierce and Johnson both drew fouls in the last two possessions and sank four consecutive free throws, keeping the Raptors at bay and ensuring the victory.

Next up: The Nets can’t dwell on this game, and they know it: they’ve got Game 4 at home Sunday at 7:00 P.M.