TORONTO (CP) – For a young Toronto Raptors squad that had almost no playoff experience, Saturday’s Game 1 had a little bit of everything – from a faulty shot clock, to a GM hollering a profanity and a deliriously loud crowd dying for a post-season victory.
It was a loss. But it was also a learning experience.
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson had 24 points each to lift Brooklyn to a 94-87 win over the Raptors, making their first playoff appearance since ’08.
“I thought we played a little bit as expected as it is our first playoff game,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “But still as bad as we played, we put ourselves in position to win and that’s the approach we have to take. The series is now at only one game, there is still a lot of basketball to be played.”
Kyle Lowry, whose locker had a sign overhead that read “Good luck dad,” had 22 points for Toronto. Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and 18 boards in his first post-season appearance –period.
“Just keep playing,” was Lowry’s message to his teammates after the loss.
Greivis Vasquez added 18 points while DeMar DeRozan finished with 14 on an afternoon punctuated by Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s apology for dropping an F-bomb when addressing a crowd, and the shot clock that malfunctioned midway through the third quarter.
The Raptors might be the Atlantic Division champs and No. 3 seed in the East but they’re considered underdogs in this series based on experience – or lack thereof. The Nets’ starting five came in with a combined 417 post-season starts. Toronto’s starters: zero.
But if they felt any pressure, Valanciunas and Lowry certainly didn’t show it. The 21-year-old Valanciunas became the first Raptor since Tracy McGrady in 2000 to record a double-double in his playoff debut and also set a record for rebounds (Keon Clark’s 16 boards versus Detroit in 2002 was the previous mark).
“I tell you what, I thought Jonas played big-time, he really did,” Casey said. “He grew up today, that was huge for us.”
Paul Pierce added 15 points for the Nets and was especially lethal down the stretch, scoring nine points in the final 2:58. Shaun Livingston had 10 points as Brooklyn had 17 points off 19 Toronto turnovers.
The Raptors rallied from an early 12-point deficit to take a one-point lead early in the third, but it was short-lived as Brooklyn led 67-62 heading into the fourth quarter.
A basket by Lowry, then a three-pointer by Vasquez gave Toronto a 76-75 lead with 5:13 to play, but Brooklyn responded with seven straight points – capped with a Pierce three-pointer – to take a six-point lead with three minutes remaining.
Pierce raised his hands and gestured to the crowd after his long bomb.
“It was just emotions flying high, playoffs, close game, taking some shots, making some shots,” Pierce said. “I really feed off the emotions of the crowd, especially on the road . . . I think it’s more gratifying than winning at home, I love those moments.”
The Raptors pulled to within five points several times over the final couple of minutes but could come no closer, sending the series into Game 2 on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre with the Nets leading 1-0.
The series shifts to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Friday.
Toronto forward Amir Johnson said turnovers proved costly for the Raptors.
“Tough game. Our turnovers really hurt us,” he said. “They really beat us in the third quarter. All around we played good basketball, there were just a lot of turnovers.”
Emotions ran high even before this series started, with talk the Nets tanked down the stretch – losing four of their last five – to purposely drop to sixth so they’d face the less-experienced Raptors.
Ujiri took the stage before the afternoon game to address pumped-up fans at Maple Leaf Square. The moment seemed to get to him as he paired an F-bomb and Brooklyn on his way off the stage.
“I apologize to kids out there and to the Brooklyn guys,” Ujiri said at halftime. “Nothing against them. Just trying to get our fans going. That’s it.”
He offered over his shoulder as he walked away: “You know how I feel. I don’t like them (the Nets), but I apologize.”
Casey wasn’t offended by Ujiri’s remarks.
“That’s Masai, that’s why our team plays like that,” Casey said. “He’s a fiery guy, and that should represent how we feel. I don’t have any offence of it whatsoever.”
Adding to an already strange afternoon, the shot clock went black with 5:57 left in the third, and after a 10-minute delay, it was decided the game would be played without one. Announcer Herbie Kuhn counted down the clock from 10 seconds on every possession.
“It’s not that disruptive, it is what it is,” Lowry said. “You can’t make excuses.”
The soldout Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,800, that included hip-hop artist Drake, former Raptors star Alvin Williams and Toronto FC GM Tim Bezbatchenko, was a sea of white, thanks to a pre-game T-shirt giveaway. They waved white towels. They stood and hollered for much of the game, breaking into random chants of “K-G sucks!” in reference to Nets veteran Kevin Garnett.
“It was unbelievable, the atmosphere of the crowd, the intensity, the noise,” Lowry said. “I can tell you the Brooklyn Nets, they were like ‘Speak up, I can’t hear, it’s loud in here.’ So it definitely affected them a little bit.”
Anthem singer Michael Ciufo sang the first verse of O Canada, then held up the mic and let the crowd take over, making for a stirring start to the afternoon.
Outside, Maple Leaf Square was jam-packed as red-clad Raptors fans watched the game on the huge screen outside – an idea that started with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ brief playoff run last year.
Saturday’s front page of a Toronto newspaper referred to Pierce, who’s 36, and Garnett (37) as “dinosaurs.”
Pierce said he didn’t see the paper. But when asked if he’d ever played a game without a shot clock, he replied to much laughter from the media: “I don’t remember if I’ve ever played without it since I’m a dinosaur. It’s been so long.”
A grinning Pierce tried to chuck his headband up into the crowd as he trotted off the court after the game. Twice, fans threw it back. A reporter noted that Toronto fans clearly didn’t want it.
“Yes they did,” Pierce said laughing. “They knew they had the cameras on them, they wanted to have pride. The third (throw) was a charm.”
The Raptors shot 39 per cent on the night, while the Nets shot 42. Toronto outrebounded Brooklyn 45-37.
DeRozan and Terrence Ross both had shaky afternoons for Toronto – the Nets did a great job in shutting down DeRozan, and Ross seemed to get flustered after picking up a couple of early fouls.
“We’ve got to make adjustments to help (DeRozan),” Casey said. “This is the time you do step up and nobody wants to win more than DeMar DeRozan.
“His heart is into it, he’s got sweat equity into this team. Again everybody is going to have an off night. Their whole gameplan was to take him out and they’re a veteran team and they did.”
Toronto (48-34) and Brooklyn (44-38) split four meetings during the regular season, with each team winning once on the opponent’s court.
The Raptors had only opened the playoffs at home in one other year, in 2007 – incidentally also against the (then-New Jersey) Nets. Toronto, also Atlantic Division champions that year, lost in five games.
Valanciunas scored the team’s first eight points of the game, and Lowry poured in 11 first-quarter points, but otherwise Johnson – with two points – was the only other contributor on the offensive end in opening frame. The Nets galloped out on an 18-2 run capped by a three from Williams to go up by 12 points with three minutes left in the first, and took a 29-21 lead into the second.
Vasquez, with 10 second-quarter points, led the Raptors in a 14-6 run to open the frame and Toronto pulled even eight minutes before halftime. The Nets took a 50-46 advantage into the dressing room at the half.
The Raptors had a brief one-point lead early in the third thanks to a three-pointer by Ross, but couldn’t maintain it. The Nets led by eight before Lowry drained a three-pointer at the buzzer, pumping his fist as it cut Brooklyn’s lead to 67-62.