TORONTO -- The Brooklyn Nets were in control. Up 101-86 against the Toronto Raptors with three minutes and change left on Tuesday, it should have been easy to close it out, to snap their five-game losing streak. Nets sophomore guard Tyshawn Taylor fouled sharpshooter Steve Novak on a three-pointer, but there didn't seem like much to worry about. Brooklyn called timeout and put Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaun Livingston into the game. The veterans just had to hold onto a 12-point lead.
Then everything fell apart.
First were the consecutive steals and layups from feisty Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, then there was a forced desperation three from the Nets' Andray Blatche late in the shot clock. Amir Johnson cut the lead to six on a driving hook, leading Brooklyn to call timeout again with 1:25 to play.
"I was thinking a lot of things at that time," Taylor said.
Garnett missed a jumper, then fouled Lowry on the other end. Lowry's free throws cut it to four. With under a minute left, the Nets walked the ball up the floor, passed the ball around the perimeter and Livingston dribbled the ball off of an opponent's foot. Shot clock violation.
After a made Rudy Gay three, the Raptors were on a 14-0 run. You could argue that Brooklyn, playing without Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry, was playing above its head earlier in the game. If that was the case, it's rare to see such a violent regression to the mean.
Toronto took a foul with 11 seconds left, Livingston split a pair of free throws and the Nets needed one stop to win. Gay let the clock tick down, drove left with five seconds to go and passed it to Johnson in the left corner. Johnson rose up for a three.
A make would mean a devastating collapse or an unbelievable comeback, depending on your vantage point. A miss would mean heartbreak for one side and the narrow avoidance of catastrophe for the other.
The shot clanged off the front of the rim, then Novak missed a tip-in. Garnett pumped his fist in celebration. Brooklyn head coach Jason Kidd had his head in his hands, but he also had a 102-100 victory.
"That last three minutes was almost a disaster," Pierce said.
In the Nets' relieved locker room, Garnett said what they've been doing in practice finally carried over to a game. Pierce credited the team for making an attitude adjustment, improving their communication and interior defense. He said he thought the losing streak brought the team closer together instead of breaking it apart. He stayed positive but seemed aware that these talking points would have been laughable if that final shot had gone in.
"Against the good teams we gotta be better, obviously, but at the end of the day we're trying to get some confidence in the win column and it's good to get that tonight," Pierce said.
The win brought Brooklyn's record to 4-10, hardly what was expected out of this roster and its $100 million-plus payroll. The Raptors' loss put an end to their two-game winning streak and dropped their record to 6-8, which is enough to hold onto first place in the woeful Atlantic Division.
Both teams looked inept for stretches, both are still searching for an identity. On the outside it's easy to make fun of this "division battle" but the players are fighting, trying to build some momentum.
"It's tough because we showed at the end of the game we can play like that," a downcast DeMar DeRozan said.
"I think we deserved it," Gay stated. "We fought so hard. They played great for three quarters and we got it back and made it a game in the fourth. We just fell a little short."
Gay, who shot 3-for-12, went up to the practice court on the third level of the Air Canada Centre after the game and made 500 shots. He said he'd have done it regardless of the outcome of the last play. He added that he had no regrets about passing it to Johnson, who is shooting 25 percent from behind the three-point line this season on mostly wide open looks.
"Amir practices that shot every day," Gay said. "It's a tale of two stories. If he would have made it, all the hard work he's done has paid off. If he misses it, you know, we lose the game and go home with an L. Today he just missed it, but I'll still trust my teammate to make that shot any day."
On the other side, what would have happened if it had gone in? Would the Nets have held a players-only meeting, like they did against Portland last week? Would they have kept talking about process and sticking together, or would they have snapped? How miserable would the locker room have been if they'd given up a 17-1 run to lose their sixth straight?
"Oh, man, it would have sucked," Taylor said. "It would have just deflated everything we had because we gave almost everything today. The guys that were in there played really hard. If he would have hit that three, man, it would have definitely sucked the energy out of us."
Johnson was the one they wanted shooting the three, but Taylor thought it was going in.
"It looked good, man," he said. "It looked good coming off his hand. Thank god he missed it."