Pierce helps Nets close in on first-place Raptors
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Paul Pierce motivated his Brooklyn teammates, implored the raucous crowd of 17,351 at Barclays Center to make as much noise as possible and sent everyone home happy by drilling a crucial 3-pointer in the final minutes.
In other words, he did exactly what the Nets were hoping he would when they acquired him from Boston in a blockbuster draft-day deal last June: provide a star-studded but unaccomplished team with the determination and grit necessary to make a serious run at a thus-far elusive NBA title.
The fact that Pierce did all this with a right-shoulder injury that head coach Jason Kidd thought would sideline the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer for the Nets’ critical showdown with visiting first-place Toronto Monday night made his performance all the more noteworthy.
''I knew the implications of this game,” admitted Pierce after scoring 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter as Brooklyn beat the Raptors, 101-97, to climb within three games of the top spot in the Atlantic Division and move a season-high two games above .500.
“Maybe if it was a different type of game, [I would have sat out],'' added Pierce, who lasted all of two minutes in Saturday’s 104-89 win over Sacramento after injuring his shooting arm.
''But this was one of our biggest games of the year. Division rival, a lot on the line tonight, so you can always pen me in with those type of games.''
With Kevin Garnett (back spasms) and Andrei Kirilenko (ankle) sidelined, the Nets were expecting to also be without Pierce before taking on the division-leading Raptors, who had beaten them in the previous two meetings.
But the former NBA Finals MVP refused to miss out on a chance to help the Nets (32-30) keep their Atlantic Division title hopes alive.
Despite early foul trouble, Pierce emerged as the Nets’ go-to man down the stretch in a game that featured a 12-point first-quarter deficit and 13-point third-quarter lead for Brooklyn.
"We didn't give up. We just kept swinging and fighting,” said Andray Blatche, who contributed nine points and four rebounds to the cause. “They came out strong at us and tried to go for the knockout punch. We took it and got back up."
As the rivals traded baskets during crunch time, Pierce, who also snared four rebounds and picked up four steals, rose to the challenge of settling matters.
He snapped a 94-94 tie with 1:14 to play by nailing a deadeye 3-pointer from just outside the arc with a defender in his face and calmly sank a pair of free throws to seal the deal just before time expired.
The win was Brooklyn’s season-high eighth in a row at home and earned the Nets a 2-2 season-series split with the Raptors.
As the Eastern Conference standings are currently set, the Nets and Toronto would meet in a first-round playoff series as the No. 6 and 3 seeds, respectively.
But Brooklyn remains focused on reeling in the Raptors over the final 20 games.
"If we lose this game, there's probably no chance of winning the Atlantic Division because they win the series, in the case of a tie, they win that battle," Pierce noted. "It was a huge game."
The Nets are also only one-half game behind fifth-place Washington in the standings.
Earning the No. 5 spot could set them up with a first-round rematch against fourth-seeded Chicago, which sent Brooklyn home with a devastating Game 7 defeat on its home floor last spring.
Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston scored 18 points apiece and All-Star Joe Johnson added 14 for Brooklyn, which got a boost from an extra-throaty crowd.
"Now we know, you Brooklyn fans, you can't go below that [level of noise] anymore,” Pierce challenged the faithful following his courageous effort.
“That's the expectation," he added. "Our crowd was unbelievable tonight and it's probably the best I've heard them all year. It was a playoff atmosphere. ... I really feed off those types of crowds."
Even Toronto coach Dwane Casey sensed the energy from the Nets, as well as the crowd, on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
''It was playoff type of basketball with physicality,” he noted. “I've said it forever that we have to get ready to play that style of basketball.”
The Nets, who are an Eastern Conference-best 22-9 since Jan. 1, already appear ready for whatever comes their way over the next 20 games.
And if they’re not, Pierce will find a way to get them ready.
Nothing But Net: The Nets will head to Miami on Wednesday night to take on the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. They’ll visit Washington on Saturday before opening a three-game homestand next Monday night here against Phoenix. … Garnett, who was all set to start Monday, wound up sitting out his fifth consecutive game after his back tightened up during warmups. … Brooklyn hit 9-of-12 3-pointers in the second half against Toronto, finishing 11-of-20 overall from beyond the arc.