NBA

Lewenberg: Raptors show their age in Game 1 loss to Nets

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Josh Lewenberg
4/19/2014 7:53:49 PM
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TORONTO - Inbounding the ball from behind the basket with 2.7 seconds left on the shot clock, at least there would have been if they were working, Nets' guard Shaun Livingston found veteran and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce in the corner.

"One," counted down Raptors' public address announcer Herbie Kuhn - filling in for the busted shot clock - over the Air Canada Centre speakers as Pierce stepped back and drained a 19-foot dagger to put Brooklyn up by eight.

The Raptors had led by one a couple minutes earlier until Pierce went on a fourth-quarter rampage, scoring nine straight points to put the game out of reach in the dying minutes.

This was precisely what Dwane Casey and his club feared most, whether they cared to admit it or not.

"I thought we played a little bit as expected as it is our first playoff game," Casey said after a 94-87 loss to open the Raptors' first playoff series in six years. "I thought we took ourselves out."

They had battled their own inexperience, working through an early and understandable case of playoff jitters, they contended with spotty officiating and even navigated around an arena malfunction that knocked both shot clocks out of commission for most of the second half. For all their shortcomings on a Saturday afternoon they can't be particularly proud of, the game was in reach until the final few minutes, winning time.

That's when experience comes into play, more so than any other moment, any other game situation. The Nets have it, the Raptors don't and it's something you can't simulate or prepare for.

"You just get that feeling," said Pierce, who has played in more postseason games - now 137 - than anyone on the Nets' roster. "[I've] been in those situations a number of times. I don't get rattled in the fourth quarter, down the stretch, in playoff settings. I've been in pretty much every playoff setting that you can imagine so I just try to stay calm."

Toronto's leading scorer had no such luck. Making his playoff debut, DeMar DeRozan didn't knock down his first field goal until late in the third quarter after missing his first eight shots.

After the game he sat in front of his locker, dejected, disappointed, frustrated. He's a student of the game and has studied playoff basketball but finally he understood what it's like to live it, to experience it first hand. "It's not rocket science," he had said Thursday. No, but it's a lot harder than it looks.

"I just missed shots," DeRozan maintained, but it was more than that.

"They overplayed him," said Kyle Lowry. "They really denied him the ball. We've got to find ways to screen him and get him more looks, get him open a little bit sooner and quicker and get him to his sweet spots."

At this time of year there's a learning curve, and the quicker DeRozan picks it up the better off the Raptors will be. If the playoffs are indeed about mental over physical strength, as Chuck Hayes so eloquently put it Friday, no one does it better than Pierce and the wily Kevin Garnett.

"I grew up watching this guy," 27-year-old Greivis Vasquez said of Pierce, nine years his senior. "I went to his basketball camp, Nike camp, back in the day, imagine playing against him right now. He's still doing it."

Nothing could faze Pierce with the game in the balance, none of the Raptors' multiple defenders - some bigger, some smaller and quicker - not even the hostile reception he got from Toronto's electric, sellout crowd.

Draped in white, the ACC was buzzing for nearly three hours in support of the home team, making things - or at least trying to - challenging for the visiting Nets.

"The atmosphere of the crowd, the intensity, the noise, we need that every night," said Lowry, who finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in his first playoff game since 2009. "I can tell you that the Brooklyn Nets were saying 'speak up, we can't hear, it's loud in here'. It definitely affected them a little bit."

"Paul, the truth is you're old, ugly and slow," one fan, sitting behind the Nets' bench, yelled at Pierce.

Moments after enacting his revenge, in the form of a nine-point fourth quarter, Pierce threw his headband into the stands, only to have it tossed back it him. The Nets' forward tossed it to another fan, and back it came again. "Third time was the charm," he joked after the game.

"I really feed off the emotions of the crowd, especially on the road," said Pierce. "It's fun when you get to go on the road and beat a team. I think it's more gratifying than winning at home. I love those moments."

Ultimately that was the difference in Game 1. The Raptors shot 39 per cent, committed 19 turnovers and got little-to-no contribution from three of their starters, but those final minutes - the moment Brooklyn embraced, the moment Toronto seemed petrified of - is what really did them in.

As Casey wisely pointed out, this series is a long way from over. DeRozan, like his young teammates, is a sponge. He and the rest of his team will watch film, they'll study and if they learn from their mistakes and evolve in those crucial moments of this most crucial time of the year they'll be ready to throw the next punch at the ACC for Tuesday's Game 2.

"Believe me, this is nowhere near disappointing," Casey said. "We are a young team and we won the division. We're third in the conference. We're going to fight our butts off to win this series. This does not identify us as far as who we are if we don't come out on top. This is one game. The series is not over."

Carrying the load

While DeRozan and sophomore Terrence Ross struggled in their playoff debuts, 21-year-old Jonas Valanciunas looked like a polished veteran, utilizing his size and strength advantage to get Toronto going early in the game and dominate the boards throughout.

"I'll tell you what, I thought Jonas played big time," Casey said of his young centre. "He really did. He grew up today and that was huge for us."

With 17 points and 18 rebounds - the most by any Raptor in the postseason - the sophomore became the second player in franchise history to record a double-double in his first playoff game.

Shot clock malfunction

Early in the third quarter, the shot and game clocks above both baskets went blank, causing a short delay. After about five minutes, play resumed but in place of the two clocks - still powerless - Kuhn, with the use of a timer, called out time markers over the PA on each possession.

"It was awkward," Vasquez said, playing without shot clocks for the remainder of the game. One flickered on directly after the final buzzer sounded. "It reminds me of back in the day when we used to play with the shot clock in the corner."

"It was definitely tough because you're so used to looking up, being able to see the time," DeRozan added. "It was tough but we just tried to help each other."

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment issued a post-game statement explaining the incident.

"We experienced a signal path failure," the MLSE release read. "Our backup system for the temporary shot clocked relied on the same source. New cables will be run tonight and tomorrow to ensure no issues arise on Tuesday and the NBA will inspect both the fixed and backup systems before Game 2."

The stat

There have been 453 best of seven series in the NBA, going into this season, and the winner of Game 1 has moved on 77 per cent of the time.

The quote(s)

"Guys, I used the wrong choice of words out there," said Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, conducting a brief press conference at halftime to apologize for using profanity in an attempt to fire up the crowd, speaking to hundreds of fans outside the ACC before the game. "I apologize to the kids out there. Nothing against [the Nets], just trying to get the fans going. You guys know how I feel. I don't like them, but I apologize."

"Well I feel the same way so, and I've got his back," Vasquez said after the game, coming to the defence of Ujiri. "He's part of the family. That's all I've got to say. He's our guy and we're going to go fight for him no matter what. We don't like any of them either. That's how we feel. All of us."

Paul Pierce and Patrick Patterson (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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