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Nets’ sense of urgency grows as Raptors knot season-series and gain standings separation, 109-108

Brooklyn Nets v. Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Jacque Vaughn wanted his players to match the physicality and hit first. Bruce Brown called it a needed-win game. In the end, the physicality was there but not a win. Instead, a tough defeat was the outcome.

“Everybody contributed in a good way tonight, everybody came in good energy even though it was back-to-back,” said Seth Curry. “And like I said, everybody was in the right space. I mean, with this lineup we had, it was good to have a chance to win at all. And I mean, that’s all you can ask right now.”

The Raptors held off the Nets in Toronto, 109-108, in front of a near-sellout crowd of 18,903 at Scotia Bank Arena, the first since the pandemic. With the loss, Brooklyn stands only one game above .500 (32-31), and Toronto, which now leads the Nets has knotted up the season series at 2-2 — a big factor if these two teams finish the regular season with identical records and are vying for seeding in the play-in tournament. While there are 19 games left on the regular-season schedule with reinforcements returning of vastly different timelines, the Nets are now the eighth seed; three and a half games out of sixth and a guaranteed playoff spot, and three games out of 11th and a fishing trip.

“There’s a sense of urgency for sure. We talked about it before the game. We talked about it after the game. We’ll talk about it when we get back home. There is an urgency,” said Jacque Vaughn on the play-in situation. “It has to be with this group. They have to feel it. They have to sense it and embrace it and walk right through that door. There is a sense of urgency with this group.”

The Nets hit the final minute trailing, 103-100. After a missed three by Patty Mills from the corner, James Johnson tapped the rebound out to the top of the key to Seth Curry, who buried a 28-foot triple to knot the game at 103 with 50.8 seconds left. On the other end, Gary Trent Jr. hit a pair of free throws to give the Raptors a two-point lead (105-103) with 30.8 seconds on the clock.

Out of the timeout, Curry got his shot rejected by Scottie Barnes. The guard got another chance to bury a two-pointer for Brooklyn to tie the game but missed the 19-foot corner jumper. Although Patty made a layup to keep it within two points, Toronto capitalized on free throws in the final seconds, building a four-point lead and Johnson’s buzzer-beating three at the buzzer was one point too less to avoid a gut-wrenching defeat. The Raptors outscored the Nets 28-19 and the two defensive three-second calls whistled by the officials on LaMarcus Aldridge with just over three minutes left resulted in two extra made free throws for Toronto to help build their cushion heading into crunch time.

“One was probably legit. One wasn’t legit,” said Aldridge on the two defensive three-second calls whistled on him down the stretch. “I was in the pick-and-roll so I can be in the paint. As I recall, obviously I haven’t watched it yet, I think I was touching Thaddeus as he was clearing the lane. I think that’s tough to call down the stretch. I don’t think it was right. It is what it is.”

It was a balanced scoring effort for Brooklyn, who were once again without any of their star players. In addition to missing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and Joe Harris, Andre Drummond was a late scratch with knee soreness.

“We all know who we have coming back,” said James Johnson about Kevin Durant’s soon-to-be return. “And we all know what we have to do to help. I feel like this shined a huge light on the rest of us that felt like no chance or getting different chances and different minutes and things like that.”

Johnson led the Nets in scoring with 19 points, two boards, three assists, and a block in 31 minutes. Curry, who hit a series of timely shots to keep Brooklyn within striking distance late, finished with 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting overall and 2-of-6 shooting from 3-Point range. The guard also dished six assists and grabbed four boards in his team-high 37 minutes of play.

Aldridge tallied a near double-double of 16 points and nine rebounds to go with three assists in 30 minutes. Cam Thomas led the bench scoring with 11 points in 18 minutes, followed by Goran Dragic, who fought off the boos from the Raptor crowd throughout the contest, with 10 points in 15 minutes.

“We should’ve won,” Aldridge said. “We had control. We had a little bit of an offensive drought. We had some turnovers. They made some tough shots. Tough calls down the stretch. That’s the game.”

Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

The Nets opened the contest with their 35th different starting lineup of the season, most in the league: Mills, Curry, Bruce Brown, Johnson, and Aldridge. Vaughn made it clear that he wanted Brooklyn to win the physicality battle and the Nets came out of the gates trying to fulfill that goal. Toronto scored 10 of their first 15 points in the paint while Brooklyn leaned towards shooting early, knotting the game at 15 in the opening minutes.

The Raptors continued to successfully nuzzle their way into the paint, forging a 10-0 run to gain separation with an 11-point lead. Dragic, who checked in with three minutes left in the opening quarter, heard roaring boos from the Canadian crowd. At the end of the first, Toronto led 32-25.

Brooklyn answered with a 10-2 run with the offense, while short-handed, flowing. Curry was a huge component in the run, playmaking and hitting a series of threes. Although Curry was the staple of the Nets’ offense, he was dealing with foul trouble and playing with three fouls. Unlike Monday, contributions followed from top to bottom, and the physicality and intensity sparked the play. Dragic heated up in the final minute of the first half, scoring the final five points to help the tenacious-playing Nets take a 59-55 lead into the break.

Toronto Raptors take on the Brooklyn Nets Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Raptors continued to get in the middle of the paint and thrive off off-ball cuts to the basket. Scottie Barnes was the leading force, as he was Monday night, getting to the basket and being the staple of Toronto’s size and length. Brooklyn went cold midway through the third period, missing seven straight shots and forfeiting a 7-0 Toronto run, but were only behind three points.

In the final two minutes of the third, it was Brooklyn’s way. The Nets showed they could do to the Raptors what Toronto had done to them Monday night, pushing a 14-4 run by turning defense into offense. At the end of the third, Brooklyn led 89-81.

After a scoreless two opening minutes of the fourth, the Raptors grabbed the momentum ... and kept it. A series of bad breaks and a pair of triples by former Net, Thaddeus Young, quickly got Toronto’s deficit to a single possession. A couple of minutes later and after a five-point swing, Brooklyn’s lead was cut to one point with 4:39 left. Despite the Nets’ offense going cold and the Raptors run expanding to 10-0 (100-96), Pascal Siakam fouled out with three minutes left, which paid a price. In the end, Brooklyn couldn’t get it done in the final seconds and was on the wrong end of timely calls by officials.

“Obviously everybody knows the situation we’re in. The guys in the locker room, we understand it a little different,” Johnson said. “We understand where we’re at. We understand how close we really are to becoming what we want to become this year. And as long as we keep playing with a no-excuse mentality and next-man-up, I feel like we’re getting better.”

The Film Room

This was the response Nets fans wanted. Brooklyn shot 50% from the field and 40% from three. They defended with passion and honor, utilizing a 2-3 zone to stymie Toronto’s offense that flowed with unimpeded smoothness on Monday evening. It’s a shame the group couldn’t come away with a win for their efforts.

The story of the game — aside from Seth Curry’s bonkers three-point shot from damn near Vancouver — was the play of two of Brooklyn’s youngest, most intriguing prospects. What the two of them were able to do against a very strong, battle-tested Toronto defense was just outstanding.

Nicolas Claxton was a bright spot, recording 3 blocks along with 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting against the Raptors. The dude was everywhere, swatting shots from the weakside and finishing plays on baby hooks, looking like the promising young big that took the scene by storm last season.

“Nic came off the bench and gave us a lot of good minutes, the athleticism was good,” said Seth Curry. “And his play on the boards, protecting the rim a little bit was good.”

He even flashed his understated handle and looked like his University of Georgia self while pushing the pace on the break. Plus, you’ve gotta love him blowing up this handoff play like a 7-foot Alex Caruso!

Cam Thomas continued his strong play as well with 50% shooting on the night. One thing that has stood out about Cam recently is the advancement of his handle. He’s growing much more confident about mixing in changes of pace with his dribble moves, and it’s helped him greatly at getting to the rim.

Beforehand, Thomas worked primarily at one speed, his mind preset on either crashing toward the rim, taking a midrange jumper, or heaving a stepback three. Now, he’s reading what the defense gives him. No, better yet, he’s manipulating the defense into giving him what he wants. The move below is filthy; a backward between the league dribble as if he’s setting up a stepback three, a quick change in his stance like he’s about to fire off a three-ball, and then a sudden acceleration after the defense bites on the fake.

He wasn’t doing this stuff at the beginning of the year!

What’s next

Chicago Bulls v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Nets will return to action on Thursday, March 3 when the team hosts the Miami Heat at Barclays Center. The game is slated to tip at 7:30 p.m. ET. Will Kevin Durant play? The Nets have set either Thursday night or Saturday for his return. Nets need him.

For a different perspective on Tuesday night’s game in Toronto, check out Raptors HQ — our sister site covering the Raptors.