The Raptors executed coach Nick Nurse’s masterful defensive game plan, holding Nets superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to a combined total of 26 points. But it wasn’t enough for the Raptors to complete the season sweep as the Nets’ supporting cast produced an outstanding effort for a 116-103 victory Tuesday night in Tampa.
The Nets blew a 10-point third-quarter lead and trailed by six early in the fourth period when three straight threes, including two by Joe Harris, triggered a 22-6 run that included seven points by reserve guard Mike James that restored a 106-96 Net lead with 3:37 left in the game.
The victory clinched at least the sixth seed in the playoffs for the Nets (42-20), who currently lead the Eastern Conference. This is the third straight season the Nets have reached the playoffs.
"It’s great," first-time head coach Steve Nash said of the clinching. "I think we have our eyes on bigger things, but it’s a nice first step to clinch a berth. For this group facing all we’ve faced, to be in this position with 10 games left is very positive."
The Nets used only eight players and seven scored in double figures, the exception being Irving, who totaled nine on 3-for-13 shooting. Jeff Green topped the Nets with 22 points, while Durant and Blake Griffin each totaled 17 and Joe Harris added 16. James, who is on a 10-day contract, scored 11 points, had six assists and zero turnovers and played the entire fourth quarter.
The Raptors (26-36) were led by Kyle Lowry with 24 points, and OG Anunoby added 21. But the Nets forced them into a 39.6% shooting night (36 of 91).
"Toronto did a good job of junking up the game," Durant said. "Every time I touched the ball at my spots, they’d come and double. So I had to just be patient and find the right pass. Guys were open all night.
"It was one of those nights where I wasn’t going to get a lot of shots up. I’m just glad we won. I’m glad guys like Mike and Tyler [Johnson] and Landry [Shamet] and Jeff had big scoring nights for us to take the pressure off of us. It makes us unpredictable."
The Nets were beginning a stretch of seven out of eight games on the road. Nash noted that they actually are in the middle of a stretch in which they have only four home games in a period of 30 days while playing 13 on the road.
"We haven’t seemed to really be affected too much by the road when given enough health, availability on the roster," Nash said. "We’ve been a good road team."
Nash actually used his 33rd different starting lineup, which is a franchise record. Although Durant and Irving combined for a mere 11 first-half points, the Nets took a 56-52 halftime lead. A 17-2 Toronto run late in the third quarter helped the Raptors build a five-point lead that expanded to 100-94 early in the final period. That’s when the Nets responded and took control with James leading the way while Durant and Irving were on the bench early in the period.
"We have a player that’s been with us a week that’s playing down the stretch," Nash said of James. "That’s just the type of season it’s been.
"Toronto really put us under duress . . . When things aren’t going your way, you can’t splinter. Our guys stuck with it, faced some adversity, didn’t play their best basketball in stretches, but they never wavered. They had the resolve to come back. We don’t have the utmost connectivity because we haven’t had a lot of time together, but we have connectivity in spirit and that’s helping us a great deal."