Nets let it get away in baffling fourth-quarter letdown

Kevin Garnett walks onto the court with 30 Kevin Garnett walks onto the court with 30 seconds left against the Raptors in the second half during Game 4 of their first-round playoff series at Barclays Center on Sunday, April 27, 2014. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

The Nets were the home team, the healthier team, the more experienced team, the more accomplished team, the team in less foul trouble, the team that appeared to have assumed complete control of the game and series.

And then, suddenly . . . poof!

In one of the most damaging and baffling meltdowns in franchise history, they allowed the Raptors to score 14 of the last 16 points last night and secure an 87-79 win at Barclays Center that tied their first-round playoff series at two games apiece.

Somewhere in a hotel room in North Carolina, LeBron James presumably was smiling and worrying a little less about the Heat's second-round opponent, no matter who survives this battle of attrition.

Give the Raptors credit for grit in winning a road playoff game for the first time since 2001 despite having several key players who were banged up and/or in foul trouble.

But mostly give the Nets blame for a self-inflicted debacle that handed back home-court advantage to the Raptors, who will have three days to heal before Game 5 in Toronto.

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"We held the ball in our hands, and we dropped it,'' guard Deron Williams said. He was speaking figuratively about blowing a chance to go up 3-1 in the series, but he also could have been speaking literally.

The final minutes were a blur of three offensive fouls, four overall turnovers (in a minute-and-a-half!), missed shots (no field goals on six shots in the final 6:12) and one particularly awful, disjointed possession that ended with Shaun Livingston's miss in the final minute.

Somewhere in there, Toronto's Kyle Lowry, playing with five fouls and hobbled all night with a sore knee, sank an unlikely sky hook over Kevin Garnett to make it 85-79. How often had he done that? He said it was the first time in a game this season.

"I did it in practice, like once,'' he said, smiling. "It's something I work on in the summertime.''

On top of all their other problems, the Nets were 19-for-29 from the free-throw line.

"The last four minutes is normally where we feel very comfortable,'' Nets coach Jason Kidd said. "We just got out of character there . . . We were trying to do it individually instead of making a play for a teammate.''

The Nets, who had won 17 of their previous 19 home games, fell behind by 17 in the second quarter, stormed back with a 22-4 run to go ahead in the third, and on several occasions in the fourth appeared to be on the verge of pulling away. Not so.

Things went so badly that it bordered on the surreal, the crowd more numb than angry.

The Nets' roster of highly paid stars and at least two future Hall of Famers was designed for circumstances such as this, wasn't it?

"This is where we should be at our best, these late-game situations," Williams said. "We've been here before. They're a younger team that doesn't have as much playoff experience, but they've been playing like it.''

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Said Paul Pierce: "Just because you don't have a lot of playoff experience doesn't mean you're not a good team. You can learn on the fly.''

So it was that the Raptors found themselves fielding questions from Canadian reporters about the "historic'' nature of the victory. Coach Dwane Casey shied away from that line of thinking. "We don't want to just be a flash in the pan,'' he said. "We want to make sure we're building something that will last.''

The young Raptors can afford to think like that. The win-now-or-else Nets merely are trying to build something that will last into June 2014, or at least until Memorial Day.

Now they are on the brink of failing to make it to Cinco de Mayo.

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