Joe Johnson scores 29 as Nets top Raptors, take 2-1 lead

Kevin Garnett of the Nets reacts after winning

Kevin Garnett of the Nets reacts after winning a loose ball late in the first half against the Toronto Raptors during Game 3 of their first-round playoff series at Barclays Center on Friday, April 25, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

They nearly threw it away, almost surrendered control in the waning seconds with some shoddy execution.

The Nets were rolling, giving a sellout crowd that took nearly a half to make its presence felt something to be giddy about. But the cheers became groans as a 15-point lead nearly evaporated. Who knows what would have happened if Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson hadn't come through at the free-throw line.

Pierce and Johnson each hit two free throws in the final 14.6 seconds Friday night, giving the Nets a 102-98 win over Toronto in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at Barclays Center.

The Nets -- who had a 93-78 lead cut to 97-96 on DeMar DeRozan's three-point play with 34.3 seconds left -- grabbed a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven series, which resumes in Brooklyn Sunday night. But it was hard for them to feel much jubilation because of the atrocious way they finished the game.

They kept the likes of owner Mikhail Prokhorov and pop star Rihanna wondering about the outcome after missing four of seven free-throw attempts in one late fourth-quarter stretch.

"No game is perfect, but you want to come as close to it as possible," Pierce said. "And by no means did we close the game like we wanted to. We had a big lead and then we didn't execute on the offensive end. We had bad fouls. Even though we won the game, you want to do a better job because as the rounds go, as the games go on, teams figure out what you are trying to do.

"Teams get better, and if you go to the next round, you can't afford those mistakes. So it's best that we take care of them now."

Johnson's 29 points and Deron Williams' 22 points, eight assists and aggressive attitude from the start almost were afterthoughts, particularly because Williams was one of the culprits who nearly helped throw this one away.

The Nets, who went ahead by 15 on Johnson's three-pointer with 5:02 left, were nursing a 97-93 lead when Williams stood at the free-throw line with 40.7 seconds left. He missed both, allowing Toronto to stay within arm's reach. "He's human," coach Jason Kidd said. "It happens. We've all been there before."

With a chance to tie the score, the Raptors' Patrick Patterson missed two free throws with 19.0 seconds remaining. Pierce sank two free throws with 14.6 seconds left for a 100-96 lead, and after Amir Johnson's putback with 3.7 seconds to play made it a two-point game, Johnson's two free throws clinched it.

But those critical missed free throws by Williams and his teammates, paired with the Raptors canning 11 of 19 shots, nearly doomed the Nets. For a team that did so many things well before that, such as outscoring beefier Toronto 43-32 in the paint, it was hard to look past that finish.

"Man, honestly, I think we got a little lackadaisical," Johnson said. "I think we were up 15 with five minutes left. That's very uncharacteristic of us to blow a lead like that . . . But that's not us by no means."

It's certainly not the calling card of a team that has championship aspirations and hopes it is in the early stages of a deep postseason run.

"A win is good," Pierce said. "We are happy and we will enjoy it tonight. But we've got to get back to work. By no means should anyone be satisfied by the way we won. We know we are a better team. We know we can play better. I'm just looking for the long run, fellas. We can't keep playing with fire. We have to be a better team down the stretch."

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