TORONTO - Although no one cared to admit it, on either side, at the outset of the evening, Monday's divisional grudge match in Brooklyn meant more to the Raptors than the game that preceded it or the one to follow.
The stakes were higher, the competition more fierce and the atmosphere was that of a playoff game - something the young, upstart Raptors have five weeks to better prepare themselves for or the result will be eerily similar.
If they looked out of place in that environment, it's probably because they were.
Toronto's starting five features a fifth-year star that has yet to make a playoff appearance. They're the only team currently in a playoff position that starts two sophomores and it's been five years since either their point guard or power forward has experienced postseason basketball. Combined that lineup accounts for 24 games of postseason experience.
Staring them down in the final minute of a one-possession, high stakes game was a Nets unit that has collectively participated in 268 playoff contests. Paul Pierce alone is responsible for 136 of them while Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko - both out with injuries - would have added another 176.
The Nets took a five-point advantage into the fourth quarter and, for all their hardships this season, they had only lost one of 30 games in which they held the lead after 36 minutes.
That's the difference experience makes. The Raptors, despite a valiant effort, showed up to a knife fight armed with plastic forks.
"This team here in Brooklyn is a championship-caliber team," Dwane Casey said following his team's 101-97 loss. "They know the plays to make to win games. We've still got to learn that. We're on our way but we still have some learning to do."
Although the Raptors remain the NBA's best fourth-quarter team, outscoring opponents by 158 points in the final frame this season, their late-game execution continues to be a work in progress. When ahead or behind by five points or less in the final three minutes, Toronto shoots 37 per cent, the ninth-lowest mark in the league. They're 15-18 in games that come down to that scenario.
On Monday, Pierce hit what may have been the biggest shot of the night - a cold-blooded three to break a tie with just over a minute left and the shot clock ticking down - while the Raptors wilted in the moment.
Down one, 30 seconds later, Toronto got the stop it needed, leading to a five-on-four break the other way. In the midst of a brilliant second half, Kyle Lowry found DeMar DeRozan in transition, believing he would continue to go hard to the bucket. Met by Pierce in the lane, DeRozan lateraled back to Lowry, who wasn't expecting the pass and turned down the shot. John Salmons, receiving the ball from Lowry, also hesitated on an open look from the elbow, which ultimately led to Terrence Ross fumbling the ball as he looked to salvage the broken play. It was a possession mired in indecision and it sealed Toronto's fate.
The Nets - 10-for-14 from three-point range after the first quarter - hit big shots and made winning plays. They looked like the desperate team, and rightfully so. Had they won, the Raptors would be sitting pretty in the Atlantic Division, five games up on Brooklyn with the season-series tiebreaker in hand. Instead, Brooklyn has pulled within three games of the division lead.
"[The atmosphere] was definitely a notch higher because of what was at stake," DeRozan admitted after the game. "They're chasing us and we're leading in the division. It was just a big game overall. They've been playing well, trying to make a playoff push and we're trying to sustain our position so it definitely was a big game."
While the loss stings, the Raptors are still in the driver's seat, controlling their own destiny with 20 games to go.
"It was a disappointing loss in the fact that they're a team that's battling us for the division," Casey said. "There's still a lot of basketball left to play. We've got to stay positive. It's not the end of the world. We weren't going to go undefeated the rest of the way. We knew that."
Should Toronto and Brooklyn share the same record atop the Atlantic when it's all said and done, with the season series now even, the tiebreaker would go to the team with the most wins within the division. The Raptors are currently 8-3 with five games left to be played against Atlantic opponents while the Nets are 7-5 with four remaining. Each of those games could be crucial - including two meetings with New York in the final week of the season - for the Raptors who are hoping to win their second division title in franchise history.
Sink or swim, that will be determined by what they're able to take out of Monday's squandered opportunity.
"It's a learning experience," DeRozan said. "It was a heck of a game that we can learn from and possibly could be a team we could see in the playoffs."