BROOKLYN -- The Nets had a bold plan. They traded for aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They added defensive specialist Andrei Kirilenko. They sacrificed draft picks and added other pieces. All told, the Nets assembled a roster worth more than $190 million in salary and luxury taxes, the largest sum in NBA history.
It was a direct affront to the provisions in the latest collective bargaining agreement designed to curb excessive spending. It screamed “win now, worry about the future later.” The Nets were looking to make a splash, to shake up the New York hoops hierarchy, ensuring The Franchise Across The River felt its presence.
With a Russian oil magnate lining their pockets and a former franchise legend manning the sidelines, the Nets were aiming high. How everything would fit together – how a hastily assembled roster would gel, how Pierce would play alongside incumbent star Joe Johnson, how a first-year coach would manage heightened expectations, among other uncertainties – was an ancillary concern. The plan would work.
It had to work.
There was too much talent, too much experience and championship savvy for this to fail
The last situation the Nets expected to be in on Friday, May 2, was facing elimination in a first-round playoff series. With a commanding 97-83 win, Brooklyn bought itself two more days before dancing with the same, dismal fate. The Nets will face the Raptors in a do-or-die Game 7 at the Air Canada Center on Sunday.
“It’s going to be fun,” said forward Paul Pierce, who scored 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting in 24 minutes. “This is what the NBA is all about – these pressure type moments. These are the types of games that elevate the good players to great players. We have so many of them coming up this weekend. It’s an exciting time, and we’re going to enjoy it. It’s a hostile environment – win or go home. Hey, this is the type of situation that I love and want to be in. I love our chances.”
On Wednesday, the Nets dropped Game 5 in Toronto after rallying from 26 points down and scoring a playoff franchise-record 44 points in the fourth quarter. Before Friday’s game, Raptors coach Dwane Casey praised the Nets for their late rally while ruing his team’s lack of discipline.
“We made a lot of mistakes,“ Casey said. “They played great. You can’t take anything away from Brooklyn. They made shots, they executed, they did a lot of good stuff offensively. We played probably as undisciplined as we played all year in the fourth quarter and did a lot of undisciplined things.”
His team seemed no better prepared to handle the Nets in the first quarter Friday than it was in the fourth Wednesday. Brooklyn bombarded Toronto with a balanced offensive attack, making 11 of its first 15 shots and getting buckets from Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams in building a 34-19 lead.
Early in the third quarter, Williams drove to the basket and turned his ankle. The eighth-year-forward lay on the court, writhing in pain. After a timeout, Williams remained in the game, though he moved with a noticeable limp. At the post-game press conference, Williams said he should be “ready to go” on Sunday. Still, It was a scary moment for a player with a history of ankle injuries.
But in the big picture, the injury represented nothing more than a minor hiccup in an otherwise sterling performance that will serve as a vindicating counterpoint to the criticism Williams has endured. Williams, who had averaged just 13 points and shot 39 percent in the Nets' three losses, knocked down a three about a minute after he went down to push Brooklyn's lead to 23, nailed another jump shot late in the third quarter and drained another trey late in the fourth, igniting the late-arriving Barclays Arena crowd. Williams finished with a team-high 23 points, five rebounds and four assists. The Nets are 3-0 in this series when Williams scores more than 20 points.
“I thought Deron showed a lot of heart, a lot of grit,“ said forward Kevin Garnett, who finished with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 27 minutes, his highest total since early January. “I would like to use another word, but I can’t. But for the most part, he showed great leadership by coming out and playing aggressive. He was beat up a little bit, but he sucked it up and got through it, and my hat goes off to him. That’s our leader and I thought he showed great poise and gritted through.”
Behind a 28-point performance from guard DeMar Derozan, the Raptors chipped away at the Nets’ lead in the second half. DeRozan soared for a powerful, one-handed jam to cut the deficit to 15 at the 9:20 mark in the fourth quarter, and the Raptors pulled within 10 with under three minutes to go. A three from Williams defused Toronto's late charge, and Johnson knocked down his free throws to help Brooklyn hold on.
“You can’t come in here and get a win, not when it’s like this,” Garnett said. "It was all on the line and that’s what we did”
With a win Friday, the Raptors could have turned the league’s most expensive roster into its most expensive disappointment. Of course, they can still drop the hammer on Brooklyn’s season in Game 7. The Raptors have won the last two games at the Air Canada Center and so far neither team has proven demonstrably better than the other.
“We know it is win-or-go-home,” DeRozan said. “Everything it is on the line now and we know we have to play from the jump ball to the end of the game or we go home.”
For the experienced Nets, avoiding last season’s disappointing finish – not to mention a narrow window of contention, what with Pierce and Garnett declining – is strong motivation.
After the game, Kidd was asked how coaching his first Game 7 would differ from playing in one.
“Well, it’s a first for everything for me,” Kidd said. “First playoff, first Game 1, first Game 2 and we can go on and on. So, first Game 7 is just like Game 1,” he said, straight out of the coachspeak dictionary. “It’s just one … a game and the challenge is to find a way to win on the road. Bottom line.”
With the expectations surrounding the Nets before the season, Sunday’s matchup is more than a game. In fact, Blatche called it “totally something different.”
Brooklyn’s bold plan has reached a critical juncture.
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