TORONTO — The Nets were using the Raptors as their measuring stick. Inches separated the two Saturday, but those inches gave the defending champions victory and the Nets a maddening loss.
Caris LeVert saw his career night end with his late jumper missing, and Joe Harris missing a putback attempt at the buzzer. When it was over, the Nets’ late-game rally fell just short in a 119-118 loss.
“They guarded it pretty well. They switched a lot of the screens,” said LeVert, whose career-high 37 points went in vain. “It was pretty crowded on that side. I tried to get a good shot up. They played pretty good defense.
“We’re not really into moral victories or anything like that. I would much rather have just played OK and got the win.”
Harris slammed the ball down in disgust as the Raptors celebrated an NBA-high 14th straight win. The Nets’ rally from an 18-point third quarter hole fell inches short. But they weren’t about moral victories, or pats on the back for playing hard.
“I don’t think we’re really in the business of moral victories,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who had 21 points and 11 assists. “We’re a playoff team as well. If you’d asked me that two years ago we probably would’ve been like, ‘Yeah we played well and we fought, yada yada yada. We’re a young group and we’re fingering it out.’
“We’re a playoff team. We need to figure out how to beat these teams. This might be our first-round matchup, so we could play them next week and then four more, five more, six more times in the playoffs: You’ve got to be ready, prepared for that.”
The Nets (23-28) sure didn’t look prepared defensively. Not after coughing up at least 33 points in each of the first three quarters, before outscoring the champs 30-19 in a comeback that fell just shy.
Considering it’s against a second-seeded foe they would face if the playoffs started today, it will gall them.
“Definitely, if we’d have played good defense for the first three quarters [we could’ve won],” Dinwiddie said. “Thirty-plus the first three quarters and 19 in the fourth, that’s the tale of the tape right there.”
The tale ended with an infuriating sixth straight loss to the Raptors (39-14), and 10th consecutive defeat in Toronto, their longest road skid against any Eastern Conference foe.
Fred VanVleet had 29 points and Pascal Siakam 20 for the Raptors.
The Nets had led 36-31 after LeVert fed DeAndre Jordan (15 points, 14 boards) for a three-point play. But they coughed up 13 unanswered points, and fell behind 44-36.
It was a dozen at the break — 66-54 — and swelled in the third quarter. An OG Anunoby dunk padded Toronto’s cushion up to 79-61 with 8:43 in the period. That’s when the Nets mounted a spirited rally, coughing up 53.4 percent shooting through three but just 27.3 percent in the fourth.
The Nets slowly chipped away, clawing within 111-101 with 5:21 left. Then they put together an 9-2 run, with a LeVert floater leaving them within three at 113-110.
A VanVleet three-point play stemmed the tide; but LeVert’s driving dunk pulled the Nets within 118-116. Then he hit a game-tying floater with 35 seconds in regulation, flexing as the Raptors headed to a timeout.
Wilson Chandler got whistled for a foul with 22 seconds left, with Kenny Atkinson challenging the call and losing. Siakam went to the line and hit just one of two, giving the Nets the last shot.
LeVert rightly had the ball in his hands, dribbling with 11 seconds left. Atkinson was gesturing and telling Dinwiddie to get into the play earlier, but the Nets ran the clock and eschewed calling their final timeout.
The Raptors took away the first action, and the second was intended to be Harris. But Toronto blew up the Nets’ screens and LeVert settled on a tough contested 23-footer. Wilson Chandler tapped the ball to keep it alive, but Harris missed the potential winning putback at the buzzer.
“We wanted to go earlier,” Atkinson admitted, but then added the truth that cost them this game. “We just couldn’t get stops until the fourth quarter.”