By Steve Lichtenstein
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That’s the trait general manager Billy King was searching for after the Nets’ inaugural season in Brooklyn ended with a Game 7 loss at home to Chicago in the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs.
It’s a must if the Nets ever want to compete in this city, where the 90s Knicks are still revered despite never actually riding in a parade down Broadway.
And when you want toughness, you can’t go wrong with “The Truth.”
Nets forward Paul Pierce accomplished so much in his previous 15 years as a Celtic. Hall of Fame numbers. An NBA Championship with a Finals MVP to boot.
Who would have questioned him should he have taken Monday night off –game No. 62 of a long regular season? Certainly not after he incurred such searing pain in his right shoulder during the second minute of Sunday’s win over Sacramento that he couldn’t return.
He’d already shown his new team how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good by ceding his customary facilitator role on offense and then accepting a move out of his comfort zone on defense to the power-forward slot, where he’s been forced to bang with much bigger bodies at age 36.
Sure, the Nets were facing the Raptors, their rival in the Atlantic Division who stole the last meeting in Brooklyn thanks to the Nets’ late-game foibles. But then again, Pierce, upon his introduction to Brooklyn following King’s draft-day blockbuster trade, told the media throng he couldn’t care less about winning the Atlantic Division.
In this one case, “The Truth” was lying.
Pierce, wearing protective tape on his shoulder, gutted through 30 minutes on Monday night and, when the game was on the line, he delivered the key stroke.
Pierce hit the tiebreaking three-pointer with 1:14 remaining and then converted a clutch free throw with under five seconds remaining to ensure that there would be no repeat of the prior gag. The Nets escaped with a 101-97 victory to keep them alive in the race for the division title.
“It was a huge game,” said Pierce. “I woke up this morning and felt pretty good. I had my shoulder worked on this morning. I knew the implications of this game — one of the biggest games of the year and a division rival. There was a lot on the line, so you can always pencil me into those types of games.”
Nets coach Jason Kidd can maintain that poker face for as long as he wants, but Pierce and the Nets played like this was worth more than one out of 82.
It took them a quarter, as the Nets initially seemed shell-shocked upon hearing the news a few minutes before tip-off that center Kevin Garnett would not be returning to the lineup after missing the previous five games due to back spasms. Garnett’s back tightened up in warm-ups and, with reserve forward Andrei Kirilenko also in street clothes thanks to a sprained ankle, the Nets were severely shorthanded up front.
But unlike some other games earlier this season, the Nets didn’t roll over. They battled on the boards, swarmed Toronto’s deadly duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and even overcame some dreadful officiating that forced Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams to the bench with five fouls with six minutes still to go.
Fortunately, that’s when Pierce shines brightest.
“He (Pierce) is a competitor,” said Kidd. “No matter what position he plays, no matter what his health condition is, he’s out there trying to help the team. He was big tonight.”
With five minutes left and the Nets clinging to a one-point lead, Pierce hit a shot-clock beating three-pointer and, after stealing an errant Lowry pass, got fouled on the ensuing fast break. His free throw gave the Nets a 90-85 lead.
Of course, the Raptors made a run of their own to tie it up at 94-all, but Pierce, with the shot clock again about to expire, took a Williams flip and stepped back behind the three-point line.
After the ball went through the hoop, Pierce screamed and slapped hands with those in the crowd fortunate enough to be in the first row.
Yeah, it was just another game.
“We were definitely fired up,” said reserve swingman Alan Anderson, who helped the Nets get back into the game with eight second-quarter points. “We wanted to try to get our division leader. The last game, we gave it away.”
The victory moved the Nets to within three games of Toronto. Truth be told, it will be hard for the Nets to catch the Raptors, given Toronto’s easy upcoming schedule and superior division record (And they’re not losing too many more to the Knicks, Sixers and Celtics through the end of the season.)
Still, this was a notable win, if only to preview what a first-round series between these two teams would feel like.
These will be games that will be decided by who has more heart, who is tougher. Just like the Bulls’ series last year.
This time, the Nets will have “The Truth” on their side.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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