There was a time not long ago when reaching the playoffs might have seemed an unlikely proposition for the Nets. But with the regular season winding down, the Nets are winning, and more and more, they look like a team that is inching closer to locking up a spot among the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Last night, in a game against Toronto that had to be won, the Nets got huge nights from Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young and pulled out a wildly entertaining 114-109 victory at Barclays Center. With their sixth win in a row, the seventh-place Nets (35-40) moved a full game ahead of the idle Heat (34-41) and 11/2 games ahead of the Celtics (34-42).
"It's huge, definitely," Young said. "We had a lot of guys that played well tonight. We had a lot of guys that stepped in to contribute and we all made big plays down the stretch."
No play was bigger than the tip-in by Young (29 points) that proved to be the game-winning basket.
A three-pointer by Williams (31 points, 11 assists) with 46.2 seconds left gave the Nets a 109-107 lead, but DeMar DeRozan (27 points) tied it with a jumper with 36.9 seconds left.
Williams -- who produced 10 points in an 89-second stretch during the third quarter after becoming upset that he didn't get a foul call -- got the ball on the ensuing possession and drove to the rim for a layup that missed. Lopez (30 points, 17 rebounds) got a hand on the rebound, but his tip-in missed, too. Then Young came out of nowhere to tip in Lopez's miss with 22.2 seconds left and give the Nets the lead for good.
After DeRozan missed a jumper on the next trip, Young grabbed the rebound and got it to Joe Johnson, who was intentionally fouled by DeRozan in a clear-path situation. He hit both foul shots, the Nets retained possession and Johnson added another free throw a second later to finish the scoring.
"We've got a tough stretch coming up, and all the teams we're playing for the next four or five games are all playoff teams," Johnson said. "So we can't have any letdowns, or any games get by that we should have won. We can't come in here saying, 'We should have won that game.' We have no time for that."
Which is why Lionel Hollins left Lopez -- who had 14 of the Nets' 37 points in the fourth quarter -- and Williams in the game the entire second half.
"I rode the starters -- I just wasn't confident in the bench and how they performed in the first half," Hollins said. "We just weren't guarding and we weren't scoring, so I decided when I left the locker room [after halftime] that I was going to ride those guys and try to see if they could bring us home.''