Heading into game one of the first-round series between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors, experience was the one word that kept coming up in nearly every preview or prognostication.
Toronto, with less than 160 total playoff games under their respective belt, would be in-tough against a veteran-laden Brooklyn team that possesses championship pedigree in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, a deep roster that is chalk-full of post-season practice and know-how as well.
For three quarters, that experience seemed to be neutralized by the Raptors. Pierce entered the final frame with six points on 2-for-8 shooting and Garnett had been shut out from the field (0-for-4), scoring only three points via 3-for-6 from the free-throw line.
Brooklyn was ahead by five but the play of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were the biggest factors for the Nets – not the old Boston bash brothers.
At the 6:25 mark of the fourth quarter, Toronto had tied the game at 73 and with the home crowd tearing the roof off the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors appeared poised to make a run. And then it happened. The experience of the Nets took over.
After trading a couple of buckets, Brooklyn snagged a one-point lead (77-76) before putting the game away on an 11-5 run that came entirely from Garnett and Pierce.
“Originally, down the stretch, we like to get Deron and Joe in the pick-and-roll,” said Pierce. “[Toronto] guarded the pick-and-roll well. I was the third option out there ... and I was able to make plays.”
Nets coach Jason Kidd echoed the same sentiments.
“We've talked all season about what the six-minute mark means to our team,” he said. “A play might be called for someone but a teammate might be ending up with the shot. That was a perfect example of that tonight with Deron and Joe playing in the pick-and-roll, and Paul benefiting from that and taking advantage of that.”
Pierce scored nine straight for Brooklyn in the fourth, all-but icing the game on a tough turn-around jump-shot over Patrick Patterson with under a minute to play. He went into the timeout pointing to his chest and gesturing to the crowd; seizing the moment in dramatic fashion.
“I really feed off the emotions of the crowd, especially on the road,” said Pierce.
“The Truth” finished the game with 15 points, four rebounds and four assists, but it was his 4-of-5 fourth quarter that truly told his story.
“That's why we brought these guys in here, their experience,” said Williams. “And you saw it tonight -- especially down the stretch.”
In spite of the 94-87 loss, Toronto may take some solace in the fact that Jonas Valanciunas did not look out of place at all. The sophomore centre was one of three Raptors starters that was making their playoff debut. And although DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross – the other two post-season rookies – struggled mightily for most of the day, Valanciunas was dominant.
The 21-year-old big man finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds, establishing himself as a force down low early only.
“He's been playing like that for the last couple of weeks,” said teammate Kyle Lowry. “We just need him to keep playing like that. … He's only going to get better. That was his first playoff game and he'll only get better.”
Valanciunas's 18 rebounds were a Raptors' franchise high for the post-season, surpassing Keon Clark's 16 against Detroit in 2002.
“He's very good [and] he's playing extremely well,” said Kidd. “We have to go back and look at that [game]. ... He definitely controlled the boards.”
Valanciunas became the second Raptor ever to record a double-double in his playoff debut. Tracy McGrady was the first to do it – against the New York Knicks in 2000.
“I was excited [and] I was kind of hot,” he said. “Too bad we didn't win.”