The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Toronto Raptors 115-103 Tuesday in their final group play matchup of the NBA's inaugural in-season tournament.
The Nets closed the first half on a 17-2 run to take control of the game. They shot 45 percent on the night while holding the Raptors to 39 percent shooting. Spencer Dinwiddie led the team with 23 points, Mikal Bridges chipped in 22 more, and Royce O’Neale drained six threes, setting a career-high for the second straight game. Nic Claxton blocked four shots, bringing him to 2.9 per game for the season, the most in the NBA.
But only one number mattered to the Nets Tuesday: 15.
Entering the night with a 2-1 record in group play, Brooklyn trailed Orlando by 14 in point differential. A win by 15 would give them the tiebreaker so long as Boston did not beat Chicago by more than 22 points. Leading 108-100 with less than a minute remaining, the Nets did all they could to put themselves in a position to advance.
They scored seven points in the final minute to give themselves a 115-100 lead with six seconds remaining. However, O.G. Anunoby would drain a three at the buzzer to eliminate the Nets' hope of moving on. The shot proved inconsequential as the Celtics throttled the Bulls 124-97 to clinch the Eastern Conference's Group C, going as far as intentionally fouling Andre Drummond while up 30 to juice their point differential.
Following the win, head coach Jacque Vaughn said his team knew what was at stake in the final minute despite the game already being decided.
“When it was 100 to 108, I ended up asking: where do we stand? We were thinking about continuing to score,” Vaughn said. “It looks like our guys knew we needed 15 points, and they kept playing. That would've been a heartbreaker, that last three at the end, and so then they told me Boston won by 40 or whatever they did, so it was over with.”
While many viewed the tournament as a desperation gimmick amid declining interest in the regular season, intrigue has grown with the knockout rounds approaching. Financial incentives caught the eye of many players around the league, with a chance to win anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 if their team advances to the knockout rounds.
However, not all players are fans, with some voicing displeasures about opposing teams breaking an unwritten rule of running up scores at the end of decided games, as the Nets did Tuesday.
“The point differential thing, I'm not the biggest fan of it because there were certain instances, I guess last Friday, where the game is already over and guys are still trying to score,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum said Sunday. “It's all about respecting the game and respecting your opponents so that part I'm really not a fan of because if you were on the opposite end of that you would feel some kind of way.”
Brooklyn was not of that train of thought, and the result was an entertaining product for fans. Both teams battled to the final buzzer, a rarity in many early-season games. When asked about players taking issue with opposing teams running up scores in tournament games, Mikal Bridges said there's “no harm at all” in how the Nets closed vs. Toronto. in how the Nets ended Tuesday's game.
“You just know what the reason is, it's trying to make it to Vegas,” Bridges said. “There’s no harm at all. We know that point differential is a key besides just winning. If you win every game by one and other teams win every game by five you’re not gonna make it. You have to play the point differential as well.”
While the Nets fell short of advancing, they won their third straight game Tuesday, bringing them to 9-8 on the season. For a team that has battled a slew of injuries while facing the NBA's second-toughest schedule, that's not a bad consolation prize.