TORONTO — The NBA playoffs returned to Toronto for the first time in six years Saturday, and the city was excited as a child on Christmas morning.
The Raptors handed out white T-shirts and towels to the fans, who rocked the Air Canada Centre in response to the team’s “Northern Uprising” theme. Yes, it was time to show the folks watching on ESPN a and YES down in the U.S. that big-time basketball had come to Canada at last.
They weren’t up to the moment. From the general manager to the technical staff on down to the players, the Raptors behaved like a Not Ready for Prime Time operation. The next time Canadians complain about not being taken seriously as a hoop nation, they should remember this day.
The GM, Masai Ujiri, got things started before Game One of the Eastern Conference first-round series, when he stood before a crowd outside the ACC and described the Nets with an expletive. Ujiri then tossed his microphone to the floor and stormed off the stage.
Ujiri met with reporters at halftime and issued a hasty apology for the epithet. Sort of. As he walked away, he added, “I don’t like ’em, but I apologize.”
Like many Toronto fans, Ujiri was still seething at Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd, who appeared to be tanking in the final week of the season so the Nets could drop down to sixth in the East and avoid facing Chicago in the first round.
Kidd denied it, but it’s easy to see why he might have preferred to play the Raptors. Three of Toronto’s starters never had played in the postseason. Not one of them ever had started a playoff game. It showed.
The Raptors, the Atlantic Division champs, turned in an uncharacteristically sloppy, disjointed performance. The veteran Nets, led by Paul Pierce, made the big plays down the stretch and escaped with a 94-87 win to steal away home-court advantage in the series.
Things become much more physical in the playoffs. They say time slows down, too. Time disappeared altogether on Saturday. Early in the second half, the shot clocks above the backboards malfunctioned due to a “signal path failure.”
Evidently, the ACC’s backup system for the temporary shot clocks relies on the same source. So after a 10-minute delay, they decided to have the officials keep the 24-second clock on a stopwatch. The PA announcer had to call out the time remaining to shoot.
So for the rest of the game, on a change of possession, you heard “24 seconds” over the loud speakers. Then he would call out “10 seconds,” “five” and so on. He would shout “Horn!” when time expired. It might have been more fitting to count down the time on a Mickey Mouse watch.
I can’t imagine it went over well with new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who attended the game. The Raptors announced after the game that new cables would be run to ensure there would be no further clock issues. Maybe they can help the Raptors run their offense while they’re at it.
The Raptor offense was brutal. They shot 39.4 percent and committed 17 turnovers, nine more than Brooklyn. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, the league’s 10th-leading scorer at 22.7 points a game, had a playoff debut to forget. DeRozan scored 14 points and didn’t hit a field goal until the second half.
Point guard Kyle Lowry scored 22 points, but shot 7 of 18 and turned it over five times. Toronto’s backcourt was supposed to be the difference. But Brooklyn’s veteran duo of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson was much better. Each scored 24 points, and they combined for just three turnovers. It’s a different game in the playoffs. Young players hear about it. But until you’ve experienced it, you’re not ready.
The main difference?
“Physicality,” said Lowry. “The game slows down. Shots are not given up as easily. Everything is contested. It’s more the mental side that’s different. You’re not getting the ball at the spots you’re used to, because they’re overplaying or more physical and deny you the ball.”
The Nets made every possession a skirmish, especially in the second half. At times, the Raptors seemed like the visiting team. They would cut into the lead, tie the game, and Brooklyn would answer every time.
Pierce has done this many times before. He’s in his 16th season. He has played more than 5,400 playoff minutes, more than twice the entire Toronto team. He’s 36, near the end of a Hall of Fame career. But this is why the Nets overpaid to get him and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. For the playoffs.
With 5:20 left, Toronto took its last lead on a Greivis Vasquez three-pointer, 76-75. Johnson made a floater in the lane. Pierce fed Garnett, who made a fallway for his only basket of the day. Then, after a Raptor turnover, Pierce buried a 25-foot three-pointer to make it 82-76.
The Nets had missed 19 straight threes until Pierce’s bomb. He made the one that mattered.
“We’re locked in,” Pierce said. “It’s the playoffs. We understand the moment. We have a lot of veterans on this team who understand the moment. We realize we’ve been through the adversity of the season. Now, we’re more than prepared for the playoffs.”
That’s more than you can say for Toronto. It’s only one game, as coach Dwane Casey pointed out. He and Lowry both said it was a good sign that they played so poorly and were close in the end.
They were rationalizing. When you lose the opener of a playoff series at home, it’s a bad sign. The Nets wanted to play them. The oddsmakers confirmed it. Brooklyn looked like the tougher, more experienced team. The better team. Presumably, Brooklyn shut Ujiri’s mouth. By the time this is over, the team he’s cursing could be his own.