Playing in their first playoff series since 2008, the Raptors fell to the Brooklyn Nets, sending the electrified, postseason-starved Toronto fans home unhappy. But as coach Dwane Casey put it: "as bad as we played, we still put ourselves in position to win".
Toronto suffered from 19 turnovers, yet battled for the lead until the dying minutes, but it was Brooklyn who got the best of the scrappy home team, 94-87, to take a 1-0 series lead.
Despite a 22-point performance by Kyle Lowry, 18 by Greivis Vasquez and 17 from Jonas Valanciunas, who also had 18 rebounds, the more playoff-experienced Nets finished with the win. While Kevin Garnett was held to five points, Paul Pierce had 15 – including a nine-point roll in the fourth quarter -- while Joe Johnson and Deron Williams added 24 apiece.
The Nets won despite making just 4 of 24 three-point attempts. They double-teamed Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and held him to 14 points, and Amir Johnson to just two, while Terrence Ross managed just three in only 16 minutes due to foul trouble.
"The series is now at only one game, there is a lot of basketball to be played," said Casey. "We got the kinks out, of the playoff atmosphere, and now we have to go back and clean up the 19 turnovers."
Crowds gathered outside in Maple Leaf Square to watch on a giant screen, just as they had a year ago for the Toronto Maple Leafs first playoff run in nine years. Inside the ACC, the tinder was white-hot – loud, fervent, almost rowdy. With Drake seated courtside, the crowd was decked in white and red Northern Uprising t-shirts and waving white towels. The fans were so amped for the game to begin, the anthem singer just gave up trying to sing over them and let the fans take over O'Canada. The faithful erupted over foul calls and non-calls and roared for every single Toronto bucket and rebound with a passion that only surfaces at playoff time. They sang "BROOKLYN SUCKS" en masse and chided Garnett relentlessly with "KG SUCKS" at every opportunity.
The Raptors slipped into a ten-point hole in the second quarter, and the energy inside the ACC seemed to temporarily disintegrate. Williams and Johnson seemed unstoppable, former Raptor Alan Anderson was providing key points off the bench, and Andray Blatche was doing everything possible to infuriate Raptor players. The Nets held a 50-46 lead at half time, but the Raptors constantly seemed within reach of tying.
The shot-clock malfunctioned in the middle of the third quarter, and when it couldn't be repaired, the Raptors in-house announcer was asked to announce the 10-second mark and count down the final five seconds on every possession. It added to the frantic nature of the game and seemed to disrupt the Raptors more than it did the Nets.
The pace and tenor escalated dramatically in the fourth quarter. The Raptors were fighting for steals, driving the floor quickly and closing the gap on the scoreboard. They tied the game just inside the 10-minute mark on the most dramatic play of the game. Lowry manufactured a steal, drove the length of the floor, then passed to Patrick Patterson, who finished with a dunk. It began a neck-and-neck race in the dying minutes.
Despite hot shooting from Lowry and Vasquez in the final quarter, it was the more-experienced Nets who held on to the lead. The 37-year-old Pierce, a 15-year NBA veteran, was hitting jumpers and driving layups in crunch time to put the game out of reach for Toronto. Pierce walked off the court at the end of the afternoon to jeers from the crowd, as he waved to them and smiled ear to ear.
"I really feed on the emotions of the crowd on the road…I think it's more gratifying even than winning at home," said Pierce, who also made a joke about being a 'dinosaur' after he was asked about a local paper calling him a dinosaur. "I don't get rattled in the fourth quarters down the stretch of playoff games, because I've been in pretty much every playoff setting you can imagine."
Valanciunas became only the second Raptor to record a double-double in his playoff debut. The first was Tracy McGrady. He also set a Raptors record for playoff rebounds by surpassing Keon Clark, who had 16 against Detroit in 2002.
It's a Brooklyn team that many allege tanked in the last few games of the regular season to orchestrate the first-round matchup with Toronto, a squad they figured they could beat. Brooklyn's play Saturday showed a marked improvement over their performance down the regular season stretch.
"We held them to 42 percent defensively shooting, but we didn't shoot the ball as well," said Lowry of Toronto's 39 percent shooting.
The Raptors and Nets will play Game 2 Tuesday night in Toronto before traveling to Brooklyn to play Games 3 and 4 Friday and Sunday.
"We're going to fight our butts off to win this series," said Casey. "This does not identify us as far as who we are if we don't come out on top. This is one game. The series is not over."