By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Who exactly are these Brooklyn Nets?
Are they the team that posted the second-best record (34-17) in the Eastern Conference since the first of January?
Or the one that lost all but 10 of its first 31 games despite assembling a roster full of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers at a price of more than $180 million this past offseason?
Are they the team that reeled off a franchise-record and NBA season-high 15-game home-winning streak earlier this season?
Or the one that couldn’t put the ball in the basket for over six minutes down the stretch in Sunday night’s brutal 87-79 Game 4 loss to the feisty Toronto Raptors at a sold-out Barclays Center?
Are they the team that insisted the additions of proven championship players like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would steel their resolve in the late stages of must-win playoff games?
Or the one that first-year head coach Jason Kidd admitted got “out of character” down the stretch Sunday night despite overcoming an early 17-point deficit to take a six-point lead midway through the final period?
All these questions, and quite a few more, will begin to be answered Wednesday night when the high-priced but aging Nets face a true test of character against the younger, seemingly more poised Raptors in a pivotal Game 5 at the Air Canada Centre.
Remember, the Nets nearly squandered a 15-point cushion down the stretch in Game 3 at home before melting down all together in the second half of the fourth period on Sunday.
They managed just three made baskets over the final 12 minutes with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in this best-of-7 series.
Kidd, who was brief with his post-game statements after the shocking disappearing act by his offense, called out his players for surrendering the one asset that made them a legitimate threat to go deep in these playoffs before they started: Teamwork.
“I thought we just got out of character,” he admitted. “We were trying to do it individually instead of making a play for a teammate. … We’ll go back and look at how we can get better. We played a little better in the second and third quarter and then in the fourth, we didn’t execute or make a shot when we were wide open.”
Pierce, for one, remained consistent throughout Sunday’s game, scoring a team-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting while grabbing five rebounds in 31 minutes.
But $98 million point guard Deron Williams and All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson were virtually invisible throughout, combining for more turnovers (7) than made shots (6) during the series-tying loss.
All this while Raptors playoff novices like DeMar DeRozan (game-high 24 points) and the hobbled but game Kyle Lowry (22 points) performed like postseason veterans despite the hostile environment on the corners of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
“You get in a playoff situation, one guy or two to three guys want to do it on their own instead of just running our offense, executing,” noted Pierce, who bailed the Nets out when they were withering down the stretch in both Games 1 and 3.
“That can’t happen in the playoffs,” he insisted. “It’s got to come down to execution. You can’t have turnovers, especially in the fourth quarter.”
To his credit, Williams took the lion’s share of the blame for Sunday’s epic meltdown, claiming he has to be “more aggressive” in late-game situations and citing that the defeat was, “all on me.”
Unlike the Raptors, who held off the Nets for the Atlantic Division crown throughout the 82-game grind of the regular season and took back home-court advantage in this series with Sunday’s win, Brooklyn literally can’t afford to lose this series.
Not with the highest payroll in the history of the NBA, and the haunting prospect of squandering a shot at taking on the defending champion Miami Heat in the next round for the second straight season.
Pierce, who is called “The Truth” not only for his ability to deliver in big games but for his candidness in front of a microphone, sees things in the Raptors that the Nets have thus-far been lacking over these first four games.
“They’re a competitive group,” the former NBA Finals MVP stated. “We’ve seen that all season long – how well they play, getting 48 wins, how well they play in the fourth quarter, so many comeback wins.
“We understand that this is a group that’s not going to back down, that's not going to give up,” he added. “They earn a lot of people’s respect around the league. Just because you don’t have a lot of playoff experience doesn’t mean you’re not a good team.”
And just because you have a ton of playoff experience, doesn’t mean you are a good one.
For the Nets, the time is now to end the perception that they are a better team on paper than in action.
That they are, in fact, a battled-hardened unit that is ready to take the next step and challenge the Heat beginning next week for Eastern Conference supremacy.
“We were going in the right direction and we just couldn’t finish it off,” Kidd lamented Sunday night.
The Nets must make sure now that their head coach’s words won’t serve as the epitaph for the 2013-14 season here in Brooklyn.
It’s time for the real Brooklyn Nets, whoever they are, to stand up.
Nothing But Net: The Nets finally equaled the Raptors on the boards Sunday night (43-43) but didn’t win the turnover battle for the first time in the series, committing 16 while forcing only 10. … Toronto won its first road playoff game since 2001 at Brooklyn’s expense, and will have more confidence at Barclays Center when the series shifts back here Friday night for Game 6. “Matching their physicality was a huge key for us,” said Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez. “We got the win by playing their way, which is physical and we were not afraid. We gained a lot of experience and confidence (in Game 4).” … F Mirza Teletovic played a huge role in helping the Nets overcome their big deficit Sunday night, scoring 12 points in just 17 minutes off the bench. … Brooklyn went 4-of-20 from 3-point range in Game 4, matching its 25 percent performance from long range during this series.