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Raptors comeback falls just short as Nets take series lead

Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce (34) fouls Toronto Raptors forward Terrence Ross (31) during the first quarter in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center.

Anthony Gruppuso/USA Today Sports

After calling out the borough in the crudest possible terms, the Raptors came to Brooklyn expecting a gladiator arena. Instead, they got a grade-school Christmas pageant.

In the end, it wasn't the fans they had to worry about. It was, in order, their own tendency to brinksmanship, the physicality of the Brooklyn Nets and the officials. The refs didn't cost them the game. They did that to themselves. But they didn't help much.

"I like my money," coach Dwane Casey said afterward, his frequent reply when given a chance to criticize the officiating. He'd spent so much of the game shrieking over the calls, he was reduced in his post-game presser to a gravelly whisper.

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His attention was drawn to one particularly egregious example – a late blocking foul called on Greivis Vasquez that was neither blocking nor a foul. When Vasquez complained, a technical was added on – a remarkable penalty given the situation.

"Those kind of calls broke our backs," Casey said darkly.

The only positive to be drawn from the game was an immense fight-back in the final five minutes that erased a 15-point disadvantage and gave Patrick Patterson a chance to tie it with 16 seconds left. Patterson missed a pair of free throws. Toronto lost 102-98.

Depending on how the next week goes, those two misses could haunt this franchise for a long time.

If it ended in pandemonium, it began in pleasant, peaceful scenes. I've been to more amped-up funerals.

Ten minutes before tipoff, the Barclays Center was not yet half full. The room was a sea of white towels draped across seats, carrying the curiously bland slogan, "We Are Here."

Existentialism and sports – it's a less exciting tandem than you'd hoped.

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The few Nets fans in attendance couldn't even work up a decent jeer when the Raptors took the court. They did briefly boo the Canadian anthem, but these aren't cruel people, so they gave up quickly. More's the pity.

The best they could manage were brief, repeated 'U-S-A' chants. This in support of a team owned by a Russian Bond villain and against a team that was, at that moment, featuring four Americans.

Behind the Raptors bench, one excitable Toronto fan was leaping from his seat to furiously lint-roll himself (a la Drake) after each scoring play. One guy from Canada showed up the whole town.

So that's one question answered in this series – You can say "[Expletive] Brooklyn" and come to Brooklyn.

Everything else is still up for discussion.

For 3 1/2 quarters, the Raptors put in their most ragged effort of the postseason, and one of their worst games since the December trade of Rudy Gay. That name came to mind, and not nostalgically, as the team descended into the sort of hero-ball that was a disastrous hallmark of Gay's time in Toronto.

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The Nets are smaller than the Raptors, but they're vicious. Time and again, Brooklyn unsettled the Raptors with the elbow in the back or a forearm shiver. In Game 2, Casey shortened the bench to good effect. On Friday, he was rolling through it at random looking for someone – anyone – willing to fight back.

Kyle Lowry couldn't be asked. He went knee-to-knee with someone in the first half and disappeared into the back room for a bit. He ended the game with a knot on his elbow and a split lip. For much of the fourth quarter he appeared completely immobile, but shook off the knock during the comeback.

In those final five minutes, Toronto outscored Brooklyn 20-9. The camera repeatedly swung up to the box where the vampire who owns the Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov, was fairly chewing off his own arm. They looked on the verge of a historic and humiliating collapse.

But with 47 seconds left, Vasquez took that terrible foul and the technical. Deron Williams made two of three free throws. That made it a six-point game.

Toronto kept coming. Patterson had the main chance. Afterward, he would say, "My first big free throws I have ever missed in my life like that."

Toronto is down 2-1 in the series, but it knows a few things now. The Raptors know that the Nets' home-court advantage is no advantage at all. They know the fans aren't a concern. They know the refs will do them no favours. They know they must be more physical. They know they still haven't found a player who can carry them through an entire game (though Lowry and DeRozan have done it intermittently).

Most important of all, they know they haven't played anything close to their best basketball, and they're still in it.

That all adds up to something. But it's only something if they manage to even the series on Sunday.

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