As they sat at the podium and were asked to reflect on what had transpired over the course of Game 3, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson—two of only three players who played the last time the Nets hosted a playoff game—were eventually asked a great question.
What is different about this Game 3 than last season’s 79-76 loss at the hands of the injury-plagued Chicago Bulls?
He cracked a slight smile almost as sharp as his well-fitted navy blue suit and loud red-plaid shirt. Deron Williams showed us his teeth as he smiled and responded, matter-of-factly.
“We’re up, 2-1,” he said as he raised his eyebrows with a slight chuckle.
And as Williams and Johnson prepare for Game 4 of their first round series against the Raptors, they do so knowing full well that they are a tougher, wiser and stronger bunch.
They do so, also, knowing that Paul Pierce will be there alongside them.
On this night, Williams and Johnson combined for 51 points on 18-for-31 shooting, but as the NBA Playoffs have long taught even the most casual of onlooker, it’s not how many points you score, it’s when you score them.
Last season, the Nets made a habit of blowing late leads and coughing up winnable games and last season, Friday night’s 102-98 victory was exactly the type of game the Nets would have lost.
After leading the Raptors by as many as 15 points with just over five minutes remaining in the game’s fourth quarter, the Nets committed seven fouls, shot just 1-for-5 from the field, missed free throws and turned the ball over.
But with the Nets clinging to a two-point lead with 18 seconds remaining, knowing that the Raptors would foul, the Nets put the ball in the capable hands of Pierce with full confidence that he would secure the game for them.
He was determined to not let history repeat itself.
One year ago to the day, on April 25, 2013, the Nets dropped Game 3 of their first round series to the Chicago Bulls in a series they would eventually lose in seven games.
In that seventh game, on one leg, hobbled and winded, Joakim Noah played what may have perhaps been the finest 41 minutes of his life.
On one leg, in Brooklyn, Noah single-handedly out-hustled and out-hearted the Nets, dismissively swatting aside the pain of his plantar fasciitis—the same way he swatted away clean looks at the rim from the likes of Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace.
In front of a mentally weak Nets team that was devoid of heart and an emotional leader, Noah scored 24 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked six shots. And once he was done, so were the Nets.
It was Game 7 of the last season’s first round playoff series. But for these Nets, that feels like it was so, so long ago. One year later, for these Nets, everything has changed. One year later, these Nets are wiser, tougher and stronger. And the toughness and tenacity that Pierce and Kevin Garnett have brought to this team was on full display, early.
With about three minutes remaining in the game’s second quarter, with the score tied, it was evident that the Raptors meant business. Hard fouls were exchanged, Williams got into a heated exchange with Kyle Lowry and the game got noticeably chippy.
From there, Pierce scored four straight points, including a thunderous dunk after blowing past Tyler Hansbrough that brought the Brooklyn crowd to its feet.
Moments later, in a scuffle for a loose ball, Deron Williams, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Kevin Garnett all ended up on the floor, with Garnett eventually emerging from the pack with the basketball in his long arms.
Demonstratively, Garnett took an extended walk across the floor, waving his arms violently, doing his best impersonation of Hulk Hogan. He held up the “BROOKLYN” on his jersey in an almost iconic moment that epitomized the spirit that Pierce and Garnett have brought to this team.
It was nothing more than a simple turnover with 45 seconds remaining in the game’s first half. But in that moment, Barclays Center went ballistic. And the 12-1 run that Pierce and Garnett fueled helped the Nets turn a three-point deficit in the half’s final minutes into a four-point lead at the recess.
From there, the message was clear: Brooklyn came to fight. No longer would this team wither in moments that required either mental or physical toughness. In the end, Garnett played just 16 minutes and fouled out of the game with 34.3 seconds remaining. He scored just two points and grabbed four rebounds.
But that moment at the end of the first half was probably the game’s biggest assist.
The Nets stormed out of the gates in the third quarter, eventually opening up an 11-point lead. The Raptors would respond with a 10-3 run to close the gap to just four points with 1:39 remaining in the third, but Pierce answered a Greivis Vasquez three-pointer with one of his own before assisting Andray Blatche on a dunk and scoring on a 17-foot jumper with 2.7 seconds remaining in the quarter. In an instant, the Raptors had gone from being trailing by four points to trailing by 11 and the Nets carried a comfortable lead into the game’s final frame.
The Nets were dominant for the first seven minutes of the fourth, extending their lead to as many as 15 points, but a late flurry by the Raptors saw their trio of Patrick Patterson, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combine to score 15 points in the game’s final five minutes.
The Nets, on the other hand, shot just 1-for-5 and helped the Raptors stay in the game by missing key free throws and committing seven mostly egregious fouls in the game’s waning minutes, the most controversial coming off of a missed Shaun Livingston free-throw.
With 20.3 seconds remaining in the game, Livingston missed the second of two free-throws and with the Nets ahead, 98-96, Andray Blatche was whistled for a loose ball foul against Patterson. With an opportunity to tie the game by making both free throws, Patterson went to the line and missed both.
With Williams and Livingston combining to convert just 3-for-7 from the line, the Nets put the ball in Pierce’s hands. Clinging to the two-point lead with 14.6 seconds remaining, Pierce calmly went to the line and converted his pair.
In the end, Pierce finished with 18 points on nine shots, but it was when and under what circumstances he was most productive that was awe-inspiring.
Pierce seems to understand that at this point in his career, he needs to pitch count himself. He can be dominant in spurts and thus far, through this series, he attempts to get going when the stakes are highest.
That’s the truth.
With the Nets holding a 2-1 advantage heading into Sunday’s Game 4, the team that lost to a one-legged Noah one year ago is a distant memory.
With Pierce and Garnett and a new lease on life, the heartless team that sputtered and faltered down the stretch of last season’s Game 7 is long forgotten.
And on Friday night, with Pierce entwining his cold-blooded and competitive nature with Williams and Johnson’s prolific scoring ability, even better for Brooklyn and Nets fans alike, it was ancient history.