Or, at least, that’s how it should’ve gone.
About an hour before the game tipped, the Nets announced star guard James Harden and key role player Bruce Brown were entering health and safety protocols, joining fellow teammates LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, DeAndre’ Bembry, Jevon Carter and James Johnson, who were previously announced to be in COVID protocols.
And to make matters worse, Kevin Durant was dealing with right ankle soreness after going off for 51 points against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday and was listed as questionable.
With all those bodies out and Durant on the cusp, Tuesday’s game was on the verge of being postponed as, without Durant, the Nets wouldn’t have the minimum of eight players required to play a game.
However, just a few minutes after the Harden and Brown news dropped, the Nets announced Durant would be available to play, giving Brooklyn exactly eight men available.
Whether you agree with the decision or not, the game between Toronto and Brooklyn was on, ending with the Raptors falling to the Nets 131-129 in overtime.
“I think that we trust that people are holding the game and we’re here to do our jobs and all that stuff and, again, just do it the best we can and go from there,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after the game if there was any thought to cancel the game given the outbreak that’s apparently running through the Nets. “Cross our fingers, hope they get no more positive tests and we don’t either.”
Trepidation over playing the game would be completely understandable with the Omicron variant of COVID looking to be running roughshod around the NBA, but the reality of the situation is that it’s here and it doesn’t seem as if the Raptors or the NBA at large will allow it to dictate how their business is being conducted.
“I feel like it’s kinda the norm now, you never know who’s gonna play or not, just wake up in the morning and someone’s in safety protocols,” said Pascal Siakam. “I think you just gotta continue to hopefully stay safe and, again, we just wanna continue to play basketball. Obviously, with the news it was a bit all over the place but we were just ready to play.”
“It’s weird,” Siakam later added. “I think that is just crazy what’s going on out there and when it feels like we kind of have it under control it’s never really under control. And I just think we’ve got to continue to try to stay safe as much as possible and, yeah, we just hope that we can be healthy and be out there to play because that’s all we want to do. But, also, we know that that’s a problem around the world, and we just got to continue to be safe.”
If the flurry of pre-game news wasn’t dramatic enough, the game itself had its fair share of ups and downs, particularly the closing moments of the fourth quarter. Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes hit a clutch step-back triple to tie the game, 117-117, with 2:12 left. This was followed with a Gary Trent Jr. triple to put Toronto up by three with 1:21 remaining before Patty Mills nailed a triple of his own with 13.1 seconds to play, leading to a missed shot from Fred VanVleet to potentially win it for the Raptors.
It looked like the Raptors were going to pull away in overtime, scoring the first four points of the extra period, but Brooklyn — and more specifically, Kevin Durant — responded, scoring six quick points to help spark an 8-0 Nets run putting Brooklyn up 128-124 with 2:08 to play.
VanVleet drilled a triple with 5.4 seconds to play to pull Toronto within 130-129 and Barnes had a chance to win it for the Raptors with a running three-point heave, but it went off glass and bounced off the iron, giving Brooklyn the hard-fought victory.
Durant finished with a monstrous triple-double of 34 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists on 12-of-29 shooting, although, as Nurse saw things, he had to earn every bit of it with Barnes hounding him for most of the night.
“I know KD had a triple-double here and 34 points, but [Barnes] was really working hard and I thought he was making it hard on him, for the most part,” said Nurse. “I was impressed that he was working so hard on him and at least making it difficult.”
And it wasn’t just on offence where Barnes was making Durant work, either, as he went off for a huge double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds himself, mostly attacking Durant, who appeared helpless at times to stop the rookie phenom.
“I would say I really just was able to get to my spots where I would make little moves to get him off balance,” said Barnes of Durant’s length. “So it really didn’t bother me so much. It just looked really open to me.”
Added Nurse: “I think when he gets into those areas, he’s really got some great length. Durant’s a really good defender and really long himself, but I think he’s got some of that herky-jerky, head fake, turnaround. I’m not sure he realized who was guarding him. He was just getting into his good spot and into his good move and just finished them off.”
For the Raptors, they got good performances from their expected culprits in Barnes, Siakam (25 points, 12-of-21 from the floor), VanVleet (31 points, nine assists) and Trent Jr. (25 points, 6-for-12 from deep), but it just wasn’t enough for Toronto.
As handicapped as the Nets were, it’s important to remember the Raptors also continue to not be at full strength. OG Anunoby and Khem Birch continue to deal with their respective injuries, Precious Achiuwa is in health and safety protocols himself – although it sounds like he’ll likely clear in the coming days – Goran Dragic remains away from the team on an excused absence and rookie Dalano Banton was also forced to miss the game out with a non-COVID related sickness.
It’s not seven men out, but five isn’t exactly a small number, either, plus the fact the Raptors were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, so there is good rationale you can think of why the Raptors fell to the shorthanded Nets Tuesday.
However, when you consider how lifeless the Raptors came out on Tuesday, that argument falls fairly flat.
Toronto demolished the Sacramento Kings Monday night, 124-101, as no player played more than 32 minutes and the team’s much-maligned bench appeared to find form at last, going off for a season-high 53 points.
Coming into Tuesday’s game, particularly against a team as shorthanded as the Nets ended up being, there was reason to believe that playing on the second night of a back-to-back wouldn’t impact the Raptors much. Their starters, in particular, were as well-rested as they were going to get, and with the bench looking to pick up some momentum — going against a Nets second unit that will likely be forced into more responsibility than normal — there should’ve been an advantage.
Instead, the Nets appeared to be the more energetic team to start with their bench outscoring Toronto’s 17-13 in the first half, to say nothing of the brilliance of Durant, who looked to show no ill effects of playing on a sore ankle as he exploded for 15 in the first two quarters.
To make matters worse for the Raptors, even when Durant sat, the Nets were still hammering them as they actually managed to outscore Toronto 13-6.
That wasn’t going to get the job done and it was looking quite early on that the job probably wasn’t going to get done from the Raptors as they allowed a 7-0 Nets run to close the first quarter to give Brooklyn a 33-32.
That led to a disastrous second quarter, mostly played by Toronto’s second-unit players, and saw the Raptors get outscored 33-24 in the period giving the Nets a 66-56 lead at the half.
The second half proved to be a whole other story for the Raptors, though.
Whatever malady of slothfulness that was afflicting them disappeared as they used a 24-5 run in the third quarter that helped them carry a 100-91 lead heading into the fourth and had a little bit of everything in it. A VanVleet triple, a couple of Siakam hammers (including one that posterized Durant), a gorgeous Trent Jr. strip and slam, an incredible one-on-one move by Barnes on Durant and even a taunting technical foul called on Chris Boucher who was just a little too fired up.
It was a far cry from anything the Raptors did in the first half as the team was engaged, energized and looked like the team with more bodies to burn as Brooklyn appeared to be wilting in the third.
“Appeared” being the operative word, that is.
Brooklyn stormed back in the fourth, taking a 109-108 lead with 7:12 left to play on a Patty Mills three as part of an 18-8 Nets run to open the period. Mills ended up erupting for 16 in the quarter, including four three-pointers.
His play ultimately snuffed out the light from the Raptors as the good work Toronto did in the third (outscoring Brooklyn 44-25) was erased.
This was a game the Raptors had to get, and they didn’t as their inconsistency between quarters and halves reared its ugly head again.
“We gotta hold each other accountable, we gotta continue to watch, learn from it,” said Siakam. “We know how good we can be when we’re all clicking and doing what we’re supposed to do and I think that every time we haven’t done that this season, we’ve paid for it. I think that we just gotta continue to learn from it.”
A season of much frustration continues.