TORONTO — It’s OK to exhale now. The first round of the NBA playoffs is finally over. I’ve been following the league for half a century, and can’t recall a more exhilarating first two weeks of a postseason.
It seemed every other game was decided in the last minute or in overtime. So many of these games came down to one play, one possession, and it was often one of the league’s savvy veterans who made the big shot or stop in the end.
So it was no surprise Sunday when the first home Game Seven in Raptors history came down to one final play. Toronto had played poorly for much of the day. But feeding off their home crowd, the Raptors made a late, furious comeback, and had a chance to win with 6.2 seconds left.
This, of course, was why the Nets traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on draft day last June. It’s the reason their owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, was willing to assemble the most expensive roster in the history of the NBA – for that sliver of an edge in the spring.
The Nets and Raptors split four regular-season games and six playoff games. When the Raptors stole the ball and called timeout to set up a final play, the aggregate score for the year between the two teams was 1,070–1,070.
Yeah, that close.
So it was time for Pierce and Garnett to justify the investment. During the timeout, coach Jason Kidd told Garnett to trap whoever had the ball for the last shot, more than likely point guard Kyle Lowry.
Lowry got the ball at the top of the key and drove into the lane. Sure enough, Garnett came over to double-team him. As Lowry sliced through the trap, Garnett got a hand on the ball and knocked it loose.
Pierce, who has started more playoff games than the entire Raptors team, saw Lowry recover the ball as he darted into the lane. He got to Lowry in time to block his shot, preserving the Nets’ 104-103 triumph.
“Kyle is so great at getting to the basket, using his body and creating space,” Pierce said. “I just reached up and jumped and challenged the shot, and I was able to get a hand on it. Sometimes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time.”
Actually, Pierce was in the right place for the wrong reasons. Raptors coach Dwane Casey said two of his players, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross, went to the wrong spots on the final play. They were supposed to set up wider, to draw defenders away from the lane.
Those are the little things that make the difference in the playoffs. Sometimes, a playoff novice goes to the wrong spot on the floor. Guys who have been there dozens of times, who have made playoff runs and won titles, are there to save the day.
That’s why a lot of people picked the Nets. They were the lower seed, but they had a lot more experience. It took seven exhausting games, but experience won out, barely.
Two future Hall of Famers teamed up for the biggest defensive play of the season. Now the Nets, who seemed like an aging, misbegotten squad in December, move on to Miami to face LeBron James and the Heat in the second round.
“I feel this prepared us for what we have to deal with now against the Heat,” said Garnett, who turns 38 in two weeks. “It tested everybody’s will here. If anything, I think we grew a little bit in this series.”
Early in the series, it seemed the only thing Garnett grew was old. He seemed slow and irrelevant. In Game Five, he played 11:40 and the Nets made their run without him. But he stood tall in Game Six and on Sunday, he played his best game of the series.
Garnett had 12 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes. It was his first double-double since Feb. 1, and the 86th of his playoff career, second all-time to Tim Duncan. He was a pillar on the defensive interior, a big reason Lowry shot 7 of 19 from the field.
He thoroughly outplayed Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas, a passive presence with three points and five rebounds – after averaging 12.2 points and 10.5 rebounds in the first six games.
“I’m not even aware of what I did,” Garnett said. “I just remember the last play, to be honest. I was super aggressive. I’ve played in Game Sevens before. I’ve beat myself up over and over again in different finals, times I thought I should have done different things, and I just applied it to today.”
Garnett is one of the most renowned competitors in NBA history, a man who holds his teammates to a high standard. As a Celtic, he drove a young Glen Davis to tears.
“He’s KG,” said Alan Anderson. “He’s a worker. He practices what he preaches every day. He wouldn’t tell us to work hard and all that if he wasn’t doing it.”
Marcus Thornton, who had 17 points in Game Seven (after scoring 17 through the first six games) wasn’t surprised by Garnett’s play. “No, not at all,” Thornton said. “He’s built for this. He’s been doing this for 19 years now.”
Garnett gushed about the Toronto crowd, though he was booed relentlessly. That happens when you’ve been in the league 19 years, exactly as long as the Raptors franchise.
“If they don’t boo you, they don’t know you,” Garnett said. “It’s a compliment, so it’s all good. I love it.”
Garnett realizes he has only so many chances at a second NBA title. The playoff defeats stay with him. The loss in Game Seven of the 2010 Finals to the Lakers eats at him. So do the playoff losses against the Heat in 2011 and ’12.
Now, two years later, he’ll get another shot at James and the Heat. Garnett seems confident the Nets will take it up another notch for the second round. They won all four against the Heat in the regular season, so we could be in store for another long, tight playoff series.
“What we did in the regular season is the regular season,” Garnett said. “That goes out the window. This is the postseason. They went through Charlotte without a beat and they have a lot of confidence. They’ve been sitting and waiting, so let’s get it on.”