The beauty and curse of the Toronto Raptors season is that every moment is a no-lose situation.
Such is the nature of a year that is already drenched in gravy; the playoffs have already been six games of bonus time, and now there’s one more.
But no-lose is a long way from win-win, or even one win, which would have been fine Friday night given that the Raptors had a chance to eliminate the Brooklyn Nets and advance to the Eastern Conference semi-final for the first time since everyone still liked Vince Carter.
Awaiting are the Miami Heat and a chance to make noise on the biggest stage of all.
But after never showing up for an over-before-it-started 97–83 loss to the Nets, the Raptors will get another chance and play the first-ever Game 7 at Air Canada Centre on Sunday.
It will be another teachable moment in a season dedicated to them. But some lessons are better to learn than others – winning and learning beats losing and learning every time.
On Friday night the lesson was you can’t play really poorly and expect to win any game, particularly an elimination game against a team like the Nets, who have been assembled at the expense of an NBA-record $200-million to challenge for a championship this season.
“I was concerned about [what would happen] tonight,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “Any Game 6 a team is going to come out with a desperate mindset, this team [the Nets] is built to win a championship this year and they were going to come out and give you their best shot. I knew that coming in and I tried to warn our team.”
They didn’t pay attention.
“We didn’t really realize we had Brooklyn against the wall and we didn’t take advantage of it,” said DeMar DeRozan, who was a lone Raptors bright spot with 28 points, six rebounds and four assists on 18 shots. “We should have known they were going to come out throwing haymakers and we weren’t ready for it.”
The tone was set for Toronto about a minute in when the Raptors do-everything point guard Kyle Lowry was double-teamed at the top of the three-point line and forced to retreat and then retreat some more, leaving him alone with his heels nearly on the black-and-white Nets logo at centre court with the shot clock winding down.
With no options, he heaved up a jumper that was officially listed at 31 feet but was farther than that. He missed.
There weren’t any possessions as transparently bad for the Raptors as that one, but there were plenty that echoed it.
“We held the ball a little too long, coming out of the pick-and-roll we held the ball one extra dribble,” said Casey. “It’s not really a hard trap, it’s a corral trap, we have to do a better job of getting off the ball.”
Before the game Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was having dinner in the media room with Lowry’s agent, Andy Miller. Lowry is a free agent this summer and Miller and Ujiri have been in a steady dialogue for weeks. After Lowry’s incredible 36-point tour de force in Game 5, his price was likely at an all-time high.
However, after the Nets swarmed him at every chance and held Lowry to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting with just four assists along with four turnovers the number might have dropped a little.
Doubtless Ujiri would have paid a little extra if the Raptors had somehow managed to get past Brooklyn Friday, but that’s a worry for another day now.
Making the problem worse for Toronto was that they may have been worse defensively than they were with the ball. The Nets shot 68 percent from the floor in the opening period and outscored Toronto 22-4 in the paint as everyone from Joe Johnson to Deron Williams to Paul Pierce were able find their way into the black wood under the basket at Barclays Centre.
By the time the second quarter was finished the Nets had “defeated” Toronto by an aggregate score of 129-94 in the previous four quarters, shredding the Raptors for 61 percent shooting.
For the game, the Nets shot 47 percent and held the Raptors to 38 percent from the floor, but most importantly the Nets won the rebounding battle 45-42, a first in the series.
What was responsible for the Nets resurgence?
Before the game Nets coach Jason Kidd claimed no special strategies, no little nuggets of wisdom. Having taken a $25,000 fine for complaining about the officiating in Game 5 he didn’t want to go any further down that road.
It was his first elimination game as a head coach but he played in his share over the course of dressing for 158 playoff games in his 18–year playing career.
“Stay the course,” he said. “I’ve always thought that a coach who is confident and doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary gives that vibe off to his guys.”
Everything is new for Kidd, now he’s coaching his first Game 7.
“There’s no pressure, there’s just a challenge,” said Kidd, who tweaked his starting lineup by inserting Alan Anderson for Shaun Livingstone and was rewarded with nine rebounds from his two-guard spot. “As professional athletes we enjoy the challenge of doing things that people don’t believe we can do. I told those guys I believed we could win this game at home and now we have to find a way to win Game 7.”
He’ll be able to lean on the decades of NBA experience throughout his lineup.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Pierce, who won an NBA title in 2008 with the Boston Celtics. “This is what the NBA is all about – these pressure-type moments. These are the type of games that elevate good players to great players … I love our chances.”
The Nets’ Andray Blatche loved them so much he guaranteed a Nets win and a trip to Miami.
Andray Blatche, feeling buoyant: “We guarantee we’re going to go there and take care of business and go to Miami.” #Nets
— Zach Schonbrun (@zschonbrun) May 3, 2014
The story of the Raptors season has been their resilience as they crawled back from a 6-12 start and ignoring a clear invitation to tank by their organization after Rudy Gay was traded and Lowry very nearly was in December.
The Raptors tried to come back on Friday, cutting a 26-point hole in the third quarter – the same lead they nearly blew in Game 5 – to 10 with five minutes to play in the fourth, but they got no closer.
So now they have to fight back one more time. The spirit has taken them this far, which is to the absolute brink of something special. The team has never had an easy way to take so it’s perhaps not that surprising they missed their exit in Game 6 when they had a chance to finish off the series.
They’ve done more than anyone expected, but they expect more from themselves.
“For us that’s our whole goal, to get out of this round,” said DeRozan. “On the outside everyone might say we had a great season but we’re not satisfied with that at all.”
Now they return to Toronto with another chance to extend a season that never was supposed to get this far. If they fail it will remain a no-lose proposition — they remain deep in bonus time — but they only have one more opportunity to win.