Playoff experience, once an area of prime concern for the Raptors, is starting to look passe after the latest in a string of superior fourth quarters by Toronto's post-season greenhorns.
The Raptors outscored Brooklyn 20-12 in the fourth to win Game 4 of their first round series Sunday night, levelling it at 2-2 as the teams head back across the border for Game 5 on Wednesday. Toronto's defence held the Nets to a 17.6 shooting percentage in the final quarter as Brooklyn shot three for 17 and didn't make another field goal after Paul Pierce's basket with 6:13 left.
Even Pierce acknowledged it had been the veteran Nets, not Toronto, who "got caught up" in the moment, ending up rushing and pressing for shots.
"They're a competitive group," Pierce said of Toronto's strength down the stretch.
"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.
"They're not going to give up. They're earning a lot of people's respect around the league."
Toronto, whose late rally fell just short in Game 3, controlled the fourth quarters of both games in Brooklyn, while the Nets made several mistakes. The Raptors also outscored Brooklyn 32-20 in the fourth quarter of their Game 2 win, so it seems post-season inexperience isn't a serious factor in clutch time.
Plus, as Pierce noted, by now these Raptors aren't really playoff rookies anymore.
"Just because you don't have a lot of playoff experience doesn't mean you're not a good team," Pierce said. "You can learn on the fly.
"Once you go through a series, you get three or four games under your belt, hey, you've got experience. I remember my first playoff game.
"Once I played a couple of games, I was comfortable. It was like 'OK, this is the playoffs? Let's play.'
"That's what you're seeing with them."
While they're mostly new to the post-season, back after a six-year absence, these Raptors are familiar with fourth quarter success, coming from behind to win 11 times in the regular season.
"That's something you try to develop and our guys have developed that personality and it's kind of carried over to the playoffs," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said during a conference call Monday.
And while the Raptors looked a little shaky with 19 turnovers in their Game 1 loss, they only needed one game to find their feet.
"I thought we were a totally different team in the second game at home," Casey said. "As the series has gone on, our guys have gotten more comfortable.
"The first game jitters is something that we've outgrown a little bit now."
Toronto centre Jonas Valanciunas had double-doubles in each of the first three games, but the Raptor who's done the most growing is guard DeMar DeRozan. Held to three field goals in Game 1, DeRozan responded with back-to-back 30 point efforts, then scored 24 points to lead the way again in Game 4. Afterward, Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said his all-star teammate "is becoming a superstar in front of everybody's eyes."
Things aren't going so well for second-year swingman Terrence Ross. The former slam dunk champion, who scored a career-best 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers in January, went scoreless Sunday and has 10 total points in the four playoff games combined.
Still, Casey praised Ross for his "superb defence" in the first quarter on Sunday and said the youngster doesn't need to worry about losing his spot in the starting five.
"This season is about development," Casey said. "To put Terrence out to pasture would be counterproductive to what we're trying to do this year. He's got to learn. The only thing that will help him next year is to go through this."
Neither team held formal a practice Monday, although the Raptors gathered to take shots, watch video and receive treatment. It was a welcome day of rest for some: Lowry injured his right knee in Game 3 was seen limping at times in Game 4, while Amir Johnson is dealing with a sore right ankle.
"We've got a lot of nicks and bumps and nags," Casey said, adding that forward Landry Fields, who was unavailable Sunday because of a sore back, is feeling better and will be reevaluated Tuesday.