By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets held a 15-point lead with five minutes left in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal versus Toronto on Friday night.
After a slow start, the Barclays Center crowd was alive and could taste a 2-1 series lead with another game in Brooklyn up next on Sunday.
Then the Nets, as they have been wont to do all season, took their foot off the gas pedal. Except that this wasn’t some throwaway game in February.
As a Nets fan who still gets awakened by nightmares from last year’s Game 4 in Chicago, where the Nets fell apart in a similar situation before losing in triple overtime (not to mention the January 27 game at Barclays when the Raptors grabbed a one-point victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to a Patterson jumper after Toronto stole a Nets’ inbounds pass in the final seconds), I feared another colossal choke was in the making.
Some turnovers, bad shots, weak interior defense and missed free throws later, Raptors forward Patrick Patterson stepped to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game with 19 seconds left.
But this isn’t last year’s Nets, nor is it the team that struggled in the 2013 portion of this season before the identity change turned the team around following their horrific start.
Patterson missed both free throws, with the second attempt ricocheting out of bounds, and the Nets escaped with both the ball and the 102-98 win.
“The guys played great for 48 minutes,” said Nets coach Jason Kidd. “This is a game of runs and you give Toronto credit for making a run late. We found a way to win at home.”
And that’s really all that should count to Nets fans who have suffered since Kidd’s glory days in New Jersey when he led a relatively nondescript group to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances.
Sure we can waste time fretting over Deron Williams’ three missed free throws in the final minute or the carryover of the poor fourth quarter defense that cost the Nets Game 2, but this sure feels better than a year ago.
Three key members from that debacle–Williams and fellow guard Joe Johnson plus reserve center Andray Blatche–all played pivotal roles to make sure history didn’t repeat itself on Friday.
Williams and Johnson combined to score 51 points on 18-for-31 shooting from the floor (including 5-for-9 from three-point range). Johnson in particular is keeping Raptors coach Dwane Casey up all night with his domination in the post.
“They’re two great one-on-one players,” said Casey of Brooklyn’s Backcourt. “We’ve got to do a better job of making sure we get help there quicker. We have got to make sure we recognize where they are on the floor. There’s no one guy on our team who’s going to guard them by themselves.”
That’s not the whole story, however. When the Nets are rolling offensively, it’s usually through side-to-side ball movement. And these two alpha dogs have come a long way since last season in sharing the glory.
“We had to learn to play with each other,” said Williams. “We’re two guys who, not to say that we dominated the ball, but we had the ball in our hands a lot. We had to learn not only to share the ball, but also had to learn where each other’s going to be. I think we have a great understanding of that right now. When Joe’s playing in the post, I know where the double team is coming from and where I need to be.”
And Blatche, who appeared to be on his way to an ignominious exit out of Brooklyn with his indifferent play of late, stepped up when both Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee were saddled with foul trouble.
Blatche was assertive on both ends, attacking the basket to contribute 12 points. Eight of those came at the foul line, as Blatche abused both Toronto backup Tyler Hansbrough and starter Jonas Valanciunas with his wide array of inside moves.
“Dray was big for us,” said Kidd. “We got in foul trouble with our bigs—he’s the next guy up and he did a wonderful job for us. During the game early on, he was aggressive in the post and he made a lot of things happen when we got him the ball.”
Kidd has taken a lot of heat from the media (including me) all season, but he has acquitted himself well so far in his first postseason experience without a basketball in his hands. He has matched Casey adjustment-for-adjustment (like how he found a way to keep Johnson going after Casey thought he had him locked down by Landry Fields).
Even as the Nets’ lead was dwindling on Friday, Kidd exuded calm. He knows his players, especially veterans Paul Pierce and Garnett, have been through this before and have the experience to weather most storms.
For the three remaining Nets who learned the hard way in Chicago, it’s nice to now have a positive outcome stored in their memory banks for future reference.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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