The Nets officially clinched a playoff berth Tuesday, and can finish no worse than the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. But their goals are loftier than that. Much loftier.
Their clinching victory fittingly came against a Raptors team that has had their number, no matter who was playing or where. But a shorthanded 116-103 win at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., snapped what had been a long losing skid against the Raptors, and turned what had been a fait accompli into a done deal.
The Nets (42-20) moved 1 ½ games ahead of the 76ers atop the conference standings, and stayed 3 ½ ahead of the third-place Bucks. But the win — combined with losses by both the Celtics and Hornets — ensured the Nets can’t drop below sixth.
Jeff Green scored 22 points to lead a balanced attack, as seven different Nets finished in double figures. Kevin Durant had a fairly quiet night with 17 points, while Kyrie Irving had nine. No matter.
Down 90-84 early in the fourth quarter, the Nets used a 22-6 run to flip that six-point deficit into a double-digit lead. Their depth — led by Blake Griffin’s 17 points and newcomer Mike James’ heady point guard play down the stretch — ensured that was enough.
It embodied what their identity has become: That of a chameleon.
“It’s interesting because we’ve had so many different lineups that I’m not sure how pure our identity is, other than we find different ways to win,” coach Steve Nash said. “I think we know what we want our identity to be. We’re an offensive team. We want to be scrappy and have an underdog mentality defensively.
“We switch a lot defensively. We’re way down the path on that style of defense, which has improved a lot over the last few months. Offensively, we want to play quick, make quick decisions, space the floor and put people in difficult decision-making and physical dilemmas trying to guard our guys in space. But having said that, with the amount of change to our lineup, I’d say that the realistic or the effective identity is being able to win different ways.”
The Nets were in danger of a season sweep by Toronto (26-35), which was on the tail end of a back-to-back. They had lost 11 straight on the road to the Raptors. And they came in just 2-20 against Toronto since the start of 2015-16, and that doesn’t even include getting swept out of last season’s playoffs.
Kyle Lowry had 24 for the Raptors and OG Anunoby scored 21, but the Nets finally broke through.
“The Raptors are a tough team,” Nash said. “When they have their backcourt — you could say when they have the two guards and [Pascal] Siakam and Anunoby, they’re a scrappy, intelligent, physical defensive team.
“They can be difficult to match up with as well. So, they’ve been good. They’ve been good against us and I think tonight is a great challenge for us. We’ve seen them now a couple times though with different lineups. But hopefully we can grow and we can figure out a solution to some of the things they do.”
The Nets trailed by eight three separate times in the first quarter, and were down by seven in the second. They were still behind 38-35 following a Malachi Flynn free throw with 7:49 left in the first half before making their first extended run.
The Nets forced seven straight misses and got an Irving steal on a Fred VanVleet turnover. That sparked an 8-0 spurt, capped by a Green tip-in to make it 43-38.
Still clinging to a 65-63 edge, the Nets had another 8-0 run — this one a minute-and-a-half blitz — to pad their cushion to double-digits after Durant found Tyler Johnson for a 3-pointer.
But the Nets couldn’t hold the lead. They immediately allowed a 17-2 run, falling behind 83-78 on a corner 3 by Yuta Watanabe.
The deficit reached 90-84 on a Flynn three-point play with 9:36 remaining. But that’s when the seesaw tilted back in the Nets’ favor. James came off the bench and scored or created every bucket in an 11-2 run.
James assisted on baskets by Joe Harris, Griffin and Harris again, before hitting a stepback to give the Nets a 95-92 lead. At that point, Nash brought Durant and Green back in, and the momentum continued. A Landry Shamet drive and a James 3-pointer put the Nets ahead 100-92 midway through the final period.
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