By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets just don't get it.
All we've been reading about for the last 10 days or so is how the Brooklyn's experience will be the deciding factor in its Eastern Conference quarterfinal versus Toronto.
Well, despite all the wars that these Nets veterans have been through, they somehow didn't get that the Raptors would throw everything onto the court to become the more desperate team in Sunday's Game 4 at the Barclays Center.
And, thanks to an uninspired start and bizarrely dreadful end-game execution, the Nets went from putting a 3-1 stranglehold on the series to now being forced to win at least one more game on the road in order to advance in this postseason after the Raptors' 87-79 victory evened the series at 2-2.
If they fail, this nearly $200 million (including luxury taxes) team will go down as one of the most over-hyped compilations in NBA history.
All of general manager Billy King's moves over the last two summers, especially the trade that brought future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett over from Boston, were designed for these moments.
But with the game on the line in the closing minutes on Sunday, Nets coach Jason Kidd took Garnett off the floor for a respite in favor of struggling rookie Mason Plumlee. Pierce, the Game 1 hero and scoring leader last night with 22 points, stumbled down the stretch with two turnovers and a key missed jump shot.
It turns out that the Raptors, with star guard Kyle Lowry playing on a bum leg and with five fouls for the final 6:37, were the hungrier team, and that's what wins playoff games.
"Just because you don't have a lot of playoff experience doesn't mean you're not a good team," said Pierce. "You can learn on the fly. Once you go through a series, you get three or four games under your belt--hey, you've got experience."
The Raptors came out determined to build on their near-comeback in Game 3 on Friday by staking a 13-2 claim after just three minutes. It took the Nets almost another minute to get their first stop of the evening.
The Toronto lead grew to 17 points midway through the second quarter before the Nets decided to push back.
The Brooklyn defense, which was surrendering layups on simple pick-and-rolls and sending a parade of Raptors to the free throw line, held Toronto to 31 points in a 25-minute span after yielding 47 points in the game's initial 18 minutes.
But Garnett's free throw that gave the Nets a one-point lead with five minutes to go was the last time the scoreboard operator at the Barclays Center needed to tap the "home team score" button.
Instead it was the inexperienced Raptors who made all the plays down the stretch. The Nets turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions, three of them on offensive fouls, in the final three minutes of play.
The Nets weren't outrun in this game (each team had 9 fast break points). The Raptors weren't scorching-hot from deep, going 6-for-23 from three-point range. Heck, the Nets weren't even pulverized on the glass (both teams grabbed 43 rebounds) like in past games.
But they were beaten.
The Nets lost the turnover battle, 16-12, and missed 10 of 29 foul shots. The Raptors paid extra attention to making sure the Brooklyn Backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson wouldn't get off like in Game 3. The duo combined to go 6-for-19 from the floor one game after a sensational 18-for-31 performance.
"They weren't going to let him (Johnson) play tonight," said Kidd. "Every time he got the ball, he was seeing a double or triple team. They would overload where he had to be a playmaker. I thought he made all the right plays but we just couldn't knock down a shot for him."
The Nets' bench, another false edge given to Brooklyn by misinformed media members, again didn't come close to providing the impact of Toronto reserves Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. Outside of Mirza Teletovic's 12-point outing, the Nets' backups misfired on 11 of 13 shot attempts.
Kidd, who hadn't been overmatched by counterpart Dwane Casey in the first three games, will be second-guessed for pulling Garnett (and forward Andrei Kirilenko) for over two minutes with the Nets down by one point with 4:43 remaining. Kidd also will have to shoulder part of the blame for the Nets' early defense and late-game offense.
"The last four minutes was normally where we feel very comfortable," said Kidd. "We just got out of character there and we didn't score and that's something that we always felt we could execute. We were trying to do things individually instead of making plays for a teammate."
I'd say they were exactly in character, only this time there's no scheduling issues or outside forces to use as an excuse. They've been tossing prosperity to the curb throughout this up-and-down season.
These Nets lack killer instinct. Without that, what good is experience?
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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