BROOKLYN -- The ice bags littered the locker room, frozen pain relievers for Toronto's growing list of walking wounded. One for Kyle Lowry's knee, one for DeMar DeRozan's stitched up hand and a bunch for Amir Johnson's, well, everything. Youth cannot save the young Raptors from the lingering effects of bumps and bruises that come with postseason play. But they won't allow it to serve as an obstacle in their quest to win the franchise's first playoff series since the 2000-2001 season.
This was the series the Nets wanted, and on Sunday night Toronto's message to Brooklyn was this: We wanted you, too. After getting abused by Joe Johnson in Game 3, the Raptors adjusted beautifully in Game 4. They swarmed Johnson with double teams, holding the All-Star guard to just seven points (on 2-for-7 shooting) and a hobbled Lowry limited Deron Williams to ten points on the night. In the fourth quarter, a poised Toronto team that coughed up a 17-point first half lead held the Nets without a field goal for the final six minutes and without a point over the final five. The result was an 87-79 win to even the first round series at two games apiece.
"We're on a mission," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "It's a marathon. We can't get too excited about a win, can't get too down about a loss."
This was where a lack of playoff experience was supposed to hamstring Toronto, where Brooklyn's veteran roster would give the Nets a decisive edge. Toronto's starting lineup totaled a combined 24 postseason appearances coming into this series--13 by Lowry, 11 by Johnson--and a coach in charge of a playoff team for the first time. It would be natural for a team to feel anxiety headed into a crucial game. It would be reasonable to expect young players to lose a little focus in the unscheduled hours before it. For Toronto though, the last two days in New York have been, simply, business as usual.
"We have been fine," said Chuck Hayes. "Our preparation was the same, our routine was the same. We were never tense, never had anxiety. We went out there and did our job."
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The Raptors led the Atlantic Division for most of the season, but the story was never about them. Nevermind DeRozan's emergence as one of the NBA's best scorers nor Lowry's development into one of the league's most trustworthy playmakers. It was Brooklyn's struggles or the Knicks' collapse. It was Boston's rebuilding effort or the tanking in Philadelphia. Toronto, with its unheralded roster and unassuming head coach, operated under the radar. They won with a sturdy defense, and a solid offense after Rudy Gay's departure. On Sunday, the Raptors held the Nets under 100 points--something they did to opponents 45 times during the regular season--and though the offense wasn't particularly crisp (41.3 percent), it produced enough at the end of the game to win.
The pressure shifts back to the Nets now, as Jason Kidd must match Casey's defensive adjustments. Kidd struggled to explain Brooklyn's breakdowns in the fourth quarter--"The last four minutes is normally when we feel very comfortable," Kidd said--but solving the post-Brook Lopez Nets is pretty simple. If you can defend them on the perimeter, you can usually beat them. Brooklyn committed 16 turnovers and shot just 20 percent from three-point range, with Williams missing all five of his attempts. Balance isn't going to come this season, not with Kevin Garnett limited to 20 or so minutes per night, not with Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche as alternatives to Garnett in the post. The Nets need to figure out how to spring their shooters and their shooters need to make more shots.
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More than ever, Brooklyn needs its veterans to step up and make plays when they are needed the most. Paul Pierce suggested the Nets rushed into too many sets and too many shots. "You get into a playoff situation, one guy or two or three guys want to do it on their own instead of just running our offense, executing," Pierce said. "I think we got caught up in that." And he's right. But when plays break down, Pierce needs to take over. When the Nets need offense, Williams and Johnson need to find ways to single-handedly create it. The Nets struggled to do that in the second half of Game 4, and Toronto took advantage.
The Raptors got an injection of confidence on Sunday and are jetting back to Toronto hungry and loose. In the locker room Hayes snapped pictures of the swarm of reporters around Greivis Vasquez's locker and told him the photo was bound for Instagram. Later, when asked about a hobbled Lowry, Hayes cracked that everyone saw him, loud enough for Lowry to hear him at his nearby locker. To a man, the Raptors appear unfazed by the pressure of the playoffs.
"That's just our team, man," Lowry said. "We have got a team full of guys who just want to win. Myself, DeMar, we are the leaders and it starts with us but we have 13 other guys who want to win just as bad as us. As bad as they want to win, we want to win."
All across the NBA lower seeds are surging. Memphis is battling Oklahoma City, Atlanta is neck and neck with Indiana and Dallas is one home win away from pushing San Antonio to the brink. Toronto has seized home court advantage back, a stifling defense, and momentum as the series heads north of the border. Battered and bruised, the Raptors leave New York feeling great.