With a last-second block from Paul Pierce and a big fourth quarter from Joe Johnson, the Brooklyn Nets held on for a 104-103 road victory against the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 to win their first-round series 4-3. The Nets advance to face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
• 'Iso Joe' puts the Nets on his shoulders. It's tough to overshadow Joey Crawford in a Game 7 or Drake in Canada, but Joe Johnson managed to pull off both Sunday. With the Nets' other veteran options showing the wear-and-tear of a seven-game series, Johnson waved off his struggling teammates in the fourth quarter and operated in his preferred medium: isolation. It didn't matter who the Raptors put on him -- and we know because they tried just about everyone -- 'Iso Joe' was getting his on Sunday. He finished with a team-high 26 points, highlighted by a stretch in the fourth when he scored 11 straight points to keep Toronto at bay.
Johnson's clutch Game 7 performance was a stark contrast to his lousy one in the first round last season. Against the Bulls in the decisive clash, Johnson managed just six points on 2-of-14 shooting, contributing to the Nets' loss. The defeat helped encourage the Nets' front office to pursue Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two proven playoff winners, this past offseason. All three contributed to the Nets' coveted Game 7 victory, helping the Nets extend a season with so much riding on it.
A first-round exit for the Nets would have been devastating. Brooklyn shelled out a league-high $102 million for its roster this season and mortgaged the team's future by shipping three future first-round picks to Boston for Pierce and Garnett. A first-round exit would have made it all seem like a waste. It would have made the Pierce/Garnett trade a failure. It would have made Jason Kidd's hiring a mistake. It would have made all of the team's bravado throughout the season seem foolish. And, maybe worst of all for the Nets, it probably would have made owner Mikhail Prokhorov really mad.
Instead, Brooklyn lives to see another day. It gets a second-round showdown with Miami, a team it owned during the regular season and swept 4-0. Pierce and Garnett get one more chance to torment LeBron James in the postseason. Kidd gets a chance to showcase his coaching chops against the two-time defending champions. And Johnson gets a chance to continue to rewrite his legacy, as he did Sunday in Game 7, and prove he's more than just a scoring mercenary with a hefty contract.
It also means the NBA playoffs have possibly seen the last of Raptors megafan Drake (no such luck on Joey Crawford!). How about one last lint-roll for old time's sake?
• The Truth sets Brooklyn free. It doesn't matter how old they are, you want Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on your team in a Game 7. The two veterans had 14 Game 7s under their belts heading into Sunday's clash and their grit came in handy when the Nets needed them most against the Raptors.
Garnett had the better all-around game of the two, totaling 12 points (5-of-8 shooting) and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes. But Pierce, who scored 12 points on just 4-of-10 from the field, made the biggest play. The 36-year-old sealed Brooklyn's do-or-die win with the most unlikely of contributions: a game-winning block.
Pierce is more accustomed to making last-second shots, not stopping them, but he found himself under the hoop in the final seconds in the unusual role of rim protector. Raptors guard Kyle Lowry had put his head down and was charging towards the rim. He lifted a potential game-winning floater into the air, but Pierce had just enough lift in his veteran legs to reject the shot and clinch Brooklyn's win.
• Raptors run out of Amir. Leading into Game 7's loss, Amir Johnson was averaging 14.6 points per game in the Raptors' three playoff wins and 4.3 points in their three losses. With the Nets' small-ball lineups, Toronto needed its wiry big man to exploit the undersized frontline underneath and be active in the paint. So you can imagine how happy Raptors coach Dwane Casey must have been to see Johnson explode in the first quarter, scoring 10 of the team's first 18 points.
He finished the first half with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and six rebounds, keeping the Raptors in the game as the Nets' offense attempted to run away. But Johnson was shut down in the second half by the worst of opponents -- himself. The Raptors big man picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in the first three minutes of the third quarter, forcing him to the bench. The gravity of his mistakes seemed to hit him when he sat down on the bench:
Johnson returned in the fourth quarter, but fouled out with 7:53 left on a freak play, falling backwards into the Nets' Johnson and forcing the guard to collapse to the ground. The oddity of the play didn't end there, as Garnett was whistled for a technical foul after bumping Lowry while attending to his fallen teammate:
Without Johnson, the Raptors didn't seem likely to mount a late rally, but Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who finished with 28 points, helped them overcome a double-digit deficit with five minutes remaining to make it a one-possession game in the final seconds. But without Johnson, who scored just two points in the second half, Toronto wasn't quite able to get over the hump and complete its Game 7 comeback.
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