Lewenberg: Nets dismantle Raptors to force deciding Game 7

Josh Lewenberg
5/3/2014 2:13:07 AM
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BROOKLYN - If you subscribe to the concept of momentum, there's reason to be concerned about the Raptors' chances going into Sunday's series deciding Game 7.

The shift began amid Wednesday's fourth-quarter meltdown, a 44-point browbeating, and carried over to Friday's Game 6.

Facing elimination on their home court, a desperate Nets team jumped out to a 34-19 lead after 12 minutes and the Raptors - dazed and confused - never recovered, trailing for the duration.

So how crucial is momentum at this time of year?

"If you look at the series, the way it's gone, it's been like a roller coaster the whole time," Dwane Casey said following his team's 97-83 loss in Brooklyn, forcing a Game 7 on Sunday afternoon, tipping off at 1:00 PM from the Air Canada Centre.

"Every game has been different."

And that was the extent of Casey's post-game assembly. Questions about momentum, clearly favouring their surging opponents. Questions regarding experience, also favouring the veteran Nets. The Raptors were being written off before departing Brooklyn.

"To listen to some of this, we may as well not play Game 7," said an agitated Casey. "Every game is different and I know our team will bounce back."

For a brief, fleeting moment, Casey's team played the unfamiliar role of favourites, up 3-2 in the series, and it wasn't a good look for them. From the moment Rudy Gay was traded they've fancied themselves underdogs. It's what brought them together, it's what motivates them.

Without that built-in adversity, they were unrecognizable. The Nets opened the game with the fight you would expect from a team on the ropes and for whatever reason, Toronto was unable to match it. The Raptors were flat offensively and showed little-to-no resistance on defence. Brooklyn outscored the Raptors 22-4 in the paint, out-rebounded them 14-4 and shot an impressive 68 per cent from the field. They moved the ball, got in the lane at will and controlled the tempo of the game from the jump, while the Raptors could barely get into their offensive sets.

"It just comes down to who wants it more," DeMar DeRozan had said the day prior. On Friday it was all Brooklyn.

"We didn't really realize we had Brooklyn against the wall and we didn't take advantage of it like we should," said DeRozan after leading the team with 28 points, no one else scored more than Kyle Lowry's 11. "We should have known they were going to come out throwing haymakers and we weren't ready for it until the second half."

"We just didn't come out with the competitive nature that we needed tonight," Lowry added. "They did an unbelievable job of forcing their will on the game tonight, but we have to find a way to match that intensity."

In taking control of the series, Toronto had finally dodged the dreaded inexperience narrative that they've been trying to shake since they drew the Nets but here it is, rearing its head once again. This was a scenario Casey had considered, one he feared.

"I was concerned about what would happen tonight," the Raptors' coach admitted. "[In] any Game 6, a team is going to come out with a desperate mindset. With this team, they built to win a championship this year, and they're going to come out and give you their best shot. [I] knew that coming in and tried to warn our team. Guys who haven't been in Game 6 before, it's one of the toughest things to do."

"Again, experience is the best teacher. Now we're going into Game 7, it's our first time at that. Luckily we have it at home."

Yes, they will play Sunday's elimination game in the friendly confines of their home gym, in front of a fan base that has been exceptionally supportive throughout their playoff run. That may be the only tangible reason to like their odds.

As a franchise, the Raptors have only participated in one Game 7, the infamous day of Vince Carter's graduation and missed fadeaway back in 2001. They have never hosted a deciding playoff game at the Air Canada Centre. With Portland's win over Houston, the Raptors now have the NBA's longest active streak without a playoff series victory. None of Toronto's starters have played in a Game 7 while Paul Pierce alone has appeared in eight, Kevin Garnett in six and Joe Johnson in four. And then there's the momentum, if you believe in such things.

The Raptors say they don't buy into momentum. The Nets, however, are counting on it.

"I think we just need to take this momentum from this game into the next," said Nets' forward Andray Blatche, who guaranteed a victory on Wednesday and did the same for Game 7. "I think our momentum will carry over. I think we found a recipe in getting a win on defence and offence and controlling the paint."

So here they are. After all this time - two weeks, six games, broken shot clocks, a lint-free global ambassador and an F-bomb dropping general manager - the division-winning Toronto Raptors are right back where they started. They're a young, inexperienced team in over their heads, right? Maybe. But if nothing else, they're back in their comfort zone. They're going to be overlooked, they're going to be the underdogs. So, count them out at your own risk.

"We believe in ourselves," Patrick Patterson insisted. "Everyone in this locker room believes in ourselves. We've believed in ourselves all year long. For us to have any doubt in our minds right now is unacceptable. It's not like we can't beat them. We've beat them before. We've done it in the regular season [and] we've done it in the playoffs."

"Now we know it's win or go home," DeRozan said. "Everything is on the line now. Either we step up and we play with a force from the jump ball to the end of the game, or we'll be going home the next day."

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