A playoff berth for these Brooklyn Nets has long been a foregone conclusion, and it became official even before they closed out the Toronto Raptors with a fourth-quarter blitz on Tuesday night in their 116-103 win.
Losses by Boston and Charlotte in games that started a half-hour before the Nets and Raptors tipped off took care of that. But the win over the Raptors, with seven of eight Nets scoring in double figures while Toronto puts its focus on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, was a sweet symbol of the way this team has thrived with contributions from every corner of the roster as the Nets have navigated injuries and a fluid roster situation throughout the season.
“As a team with all we’ve been through, with the injuries, with the shake-ups in the lineups, it is something that we can hang our hats on by sticking with the plan, playing for each other no matter who’s out there on the floor,” said Jeff Green. “We can be proud of ourselves. We fought through adversity, with the injuries to Kev, now to James (Harden), guys in and out of the lineups, (Tyler Johnson) out, we’ve battled through it all. At the end of the day, we’ve fought and at the end of the day, we put ourselves in position to clinch tonight. That’s something we can be proud of, but we also have to realize that that’s not the goal.
“We have to continue to work with these next 10 games that we have to continue to get better to put ourselves in the best position for the playoffs. And then, we have to take on the next step, and that’s focusing on what we need to accomplish in the playoffs to get to our ultimate goal. So we have to be excited with some of the things that we’ve done, but we can’t be content and we have to continue to work.”
This will be the third straight playoff appearance for the Nets, and the sixth in their nine seasons in Brooklyn. They’re 42-20 now, a winning percentage of .677 that is on pace to be the highest in team history. With 10 games remaining in this shortened regular season, Brooklyn is 1½ games ahead of Philadelphia in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I think we have our eyes on bigger things, but it’s a nice first step to clinch a berth,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “For this group, facing all we’ve faced, to be in this position with 10 games left is very positive.”
“It's definitely one of those things where we're really just focused, we're trying to win every game, we're not looking too far ahead to the playoffs,” said Joe Harris. “We just want to be playing your best basketball going into the playoffs but we're trying to win every game from here on out regardless of who’s playing, who we're playing against and we do know the importance of playing good basketball at the right time. So every game is important so you're not looking too far ahead into the playoffs.”
The Nets worked their way out of a slow start to a 10-point lead in the third quarter before Toronto wiped out that lead with a 17-2 run and took an 83-80 lead into the fourth quarter. The Raptors’ momentum didn’t last. The Nets regained control with a 16-2 run, making eight of their first 11 shots in the fourth quarter to take an eight-point lead with six minutes left to play and eventually outscoring the Raptors 36-20 in the fourth quarter.
“Early in the game we wanted to get two on the ball, so I was catching in the post a lot, they were coming on the catch,” said Durant. “We were swinging, swinging into good shots but we weren’t making them, so I think that fourth quarter we put the ball in (Mike James) hands and told him to get to the paint and run pick and roll and he was able to get something great. We ended up making some tough shots there in the fourth, but we had a nice rhythm and momentum with that offense we were running. We had shooters around Mike and Jeff went to the rim and we were able to get stops as well on the other end.”
While the Raptors limited Durant to just seven field goal attempts, he made five of them, including three 3-pointers, and finished with a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds, plus four assists, two steals and two blocks.
Meanwhile, Green led Brooklyn with 22 points while grabbing eight rebounds. Blake Griffin had 17 points and six rebounds and Harris had 16 points and six assists.
Landry Shamet scored 14 points, James had 11 with eight assists, and Tyler Johnson added 10 points.
“We just expect everybody to be aggressive and play, whether that’s on the swing of the ball from KD and driving the ball, being aggressive to the rim or making a play for somebody else,” said Green. “We can’t just sit back and try to force feed it, because when we do that it’s easier for them to guard. So being aggressive on the weak side and making plays is gonna force them to relax that double team and that’s when KD can go to work, so we just have to do our job.”
After Toronto jumped out to a 14-7 lead to start the game, the Nets scored 10 of the final 14 points of the first quarter to close within 28-26 going into the second quarter.
The Raptors quickly pushed that lead back to seven points, but the Nets followed with a 17-5 run that began with consecutive 3-pointers from Shamet and Harris. Another Harris 3-pointer evened the game at 35. After Malachi Flynn’s three-point play for Toronto, the Nets scored eight straight — the middle four coming from Kyrie Irving — on the way to a 43-38 lead. Johnson’s 3-pointer gave Brooklyn its biggest lead of the first half at 54-46 before the Raptors cut that lead in half at the break.
“I think they scramble incredibly well,” said Nash of Toronto’s defense. “They speed you up and make you play at a pace just north of where you normally play at. So I think it took us time to get used to that. I think also the more we were able to spread them out and play with a little pace, make them guard in space, we were able to create bigger openings, bigger gaps, longer rotations which made it more difficult for them.”
An 8-0 run midway through the third quarter extended the Brooklyn lead to 10 points, with Shamet finishing a drive and Green and Johnson knocking down 3-pointers that put the Nets up 73-63. But with the Nets leading 76-66, the Raptors put together a 17-2 run to take the lead before Griffin’s rebound basket in the final seconds of the quarter brought the Nets within 83-80 going into the fourth quarter.
The Raptors were up 90-84 when the Nets launched that 16-2 run that took control of the game. Harris made a pair of 3-pointers with one from Griffin in between. James dropped in a high-arcing jumper, Shamet followed with a drive and finish, and James’ 3-pointer put the Nets up 100-92 with 6:01 remaining. After Green thew down a dunk and then made a pair of free throws, the Nets were up 106-96 with three minutes to go.
“We know exactly how we want to play,” said Durant. “I think tonight Toronto did a good job of junking up the game. Every time I touched the ball at my spots, they’d come and double. So I had to just be patient and find the right pass. Guys were open all night. I think we have a team that can play a variety of different ways, and tonight, we showed that, having Mike come off the bench having the ball late in the game, playing a small lineup. We can be versatile in how we play and tonight was one of those nights.”