The Brooklyn Nets are taking their talents to South Beach.
The Nets became the first major professional sports team from Brooklyn to win a playoff series since 1955 on Sunday when they beat the Toronto Raptors 104-103 on the road in Game 7 to win the series. They will now head to Miami, where they will take on the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
They nearly didn't make it, though, as Paul Pierce turned over an inbound pass in the final seconds that gave the ball to Toronto with 8.8 seconds left and a chance to win the game. On defense in the final possession, Pierce blocked a shot at the buzzer by Kyle Lowry, who finished with 28 points, that would have won the game.
"On the road, Game 7, you are playing for your lives," said Pierce, who finished with just 10 points. "I didn't really have a great offensive game. I was in foul trouble most of the night. You have to find a way to help your team win. Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time and I was there tonight."
Pierce had the play of the game, but Joe Johnson was the player of the game. He led the Nets with 26 points with four rebounds. In the fourth quarter, when the rest of the team shot just 2-for-10 from the floor, he was once again "Joe Jesus," scoring 13 points to keep the Nets in the lead.
"Joe’s kept us alive this whole series,” Kevin Garnett said. "When we didn’t have a hope, he gave us light. We’ve gotta give him something, we can’t just leave him out there like that. But, ‘Joe Jesus,’ I told you, cooler than the other side of the pillow. He’s one of the best to do it."
In the biggest game of the season, the Nets ran most plays through Johnson as nobody could guard him one-on-one and when the Raptors double-teamed him, he was quick to find an open Nets player.
"Just trying to be aggressive," Johnson said. "Early on, I took my time picking my spots. I thought my teammates did a great job of making plays, and I was throwing the ball out of double-teams, and down the stretch I knew they weren’t going to double as much, but they gave me a few different looks."
The Nets needed that type of game from Johnson because they weren't getting it from point guard Deron Williams, who, like Pierce, was in foul trouble for most of the night. Williams finished with 13 points and four assists. He missed a key free throw in the final minute of the game. The Nets did get a big contribution from the bench in Marcus Thornton, who had 17 points and tied a team record for threes off the bench in a playoff game with four.
It was Thornton that sparked a big run in the second quarter that ended up being the difference in the game. He hit a pair of threes off the bench and four more shots from the line and Garnett, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, chipped in with eight points as well to give them an eight-point lead at halftime. The Raptors never led again in the game after that.
This is the first playoff series victory for the Nets since they moved to Brooklyn. They played the Chicago Bulls last season in the first round of the playoffs and got all the way to Game 7, but lost at home. After that, Williams labeled the team "soft" and the Nets went out and got Garnett and Pierce from the Celtics in the offseason. This season, in Game 7, those two were a big difference.
"It’s so gratifying and to get the Game 7 that they didn’t get last year," Pierce said, "To bring in the veterans to help them control that attitude, control the locker room, ease everybody’s tension and not be nervous and just be mentally ready in these types of games and being in this environment. Not a lot of guys have won a Game 7 on the road and to get a win, that’s huge for our psyche."
Garnett even went as far as to say that the Nets grew as a team during this series. "This tested us and prepared us for what we have to deal with now with the Heat," he said.