The Nets turned what looked as if it would devolve into an embarrassing blowout loss against the defending NBA champion Raptors into a competitive single-digit game in the fourth quarter after a shocking comeback. But there was only so much gas in the Nets’ tank and it ran out midway through the final period as the Raptors regained control for a 134-110 Game 1 victory in their first-round playoff series Monday afternoon at Disney World in Orlando.
After trailing by 33 points in the second period, the Nets got within eight in the third period and still trailed by just nine early in the fourth. But Fred VanVleet was too hot for the Nets to handle, hitting two three-pointers in a 15-7 Raptors surge that restored a 114-96 lead on a three-point play by OG Anunoby with 7:09 left to play. The closest the Nets could get the rest of the way was 14 points.
Describing the importance of the comeback for a roster-depleted Nets team against the champs, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who scored 26 points, including 6-of-9 three-point shooting, said, “This is huge. That was the words at the end of the game. We know the recipe, we know what we have to do, and we know the way we have to play. This is the defending champion, and it’s not going to be easy.
“So, to come back, we know how we have to play. That’s how we did it in the third [quarter], and that’s the way we’re going to start every single game.”
Joe Harris added 19 points for the Nets (0-1), Caris LeVert had 15 points and a career-high 15 assists, and Jarrett Allen totaled 15 points and 12 rebounds. VanVleet topped the Raptors (1-0) with 30 points, including an 8-of-10 performance from three-point range, and he added 10 assists. Serge Ibaka scored 22, Pascal Siakam added 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Kyle Lowry had 16. The Raptors shot 50.0 percent from three-point range (22 of 44).
Obviously, there was a profound difference in experience between the defending champions, who returned everyone from their title run except Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. By contrast, the Nets are without six players who were on the active roster when the season paused in March, and they were overwhelmed early when the Raptors built a 33-point lead at 68-35 late in the second period while blanketing LeVert and Harris on defense.
“Not just early on it was the whole game,” LeVert said of the defensive attention. “They were trapping all of my isos, mid-post, top, all my ball screens. I feel like that was the plan throughout the whole game. At times, we did a great job of attacking that, but we’ve got to watch film and see how we can get some easier shots.”
LeVert also faulted poor first-quarter defense for creating the large gap. “The first quarter, they were just coming off freebies, making shots feel like they were just warm-up practice shots,” LeVert said. “We can’t play that way.”
The Nets closed on a 16-5 run to cut their halftime deficit to 73-51. But the 73 first-half points by the Raptors was a Nets franchise record for an opponent in a playoff game. Amazingly, the Nets carried the momentum into the third period, turning it into an extended 47-22 run to cut the Raptors’ lead to eight at 90-82 on a three-pointer by Luwawu-Cabarrot with 2:06 left in the quarter.
“They are champions and have played on the big stage before, and it seemed like they were trying to deliver an early message to the group,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I like the way our group responded after halftime and accepted that first punch from Toronto, and the rounds will continue.”