Raps raise questions about unsteady Nets

NEW YORK –- With less than five minutes to go, the Nets and Raptors found themselves deadlocked at 79.

This is when all that playoff experience is supposed to pay off, right?

Yet when the pressure of Game 4 intensified, one team looked like it was playing in its first playoff series ever, missing its final five shots while turning the ball over four straight times during one critical stretch.

That team wasn’t those baby Raptors, who are supposed to have just hatched out of their eggs. Instead, the Nets looked inept and disturbingly shaky in crunch time.

Forget about all that lack of playoff experience and calls from the officials. The Raptors already figured out how to win a playoff game and now officially know how to win one on the road after walking out of Barclays with an 87-79 win to even this series.

“Very disappointing,” Deron Williams said. “Going in there and stealing that first one ... we kinda held the ball in our hands.

“And we dropped it.”

As the young Raps take their first playoff baby steps, the Nets are also learning plenty about themselves. Brooklyn might be built to win now, but it still is very much discovering how its high-priced pieces respond when the playoff pressure is on.

Sunday night, with a chance to put the Raptors in a stranglehold, the Nets crumbled when it mattered most.

Think the Raptors have a lot of questions to answer? The Nets have almost as many questions to answer but with more pressure, since they are the ones with the gazillion-dollar payroll.

What happens when Joe Johnson is double-teamed? Who steps up?

We know Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have won it all. But can Williams keep playing like an aggressive All-Star and win a series for Brooklyn? Also, do Pierce and Garnett have enough left in the tank to complement Williams and Johnson?

And how will Jason Kidd respond under pressure coaching in the playoffs for the first time?

These are just some of the many questions that will be answered for Brooklyn in the next few days as this first-round slugfest turns into a best-of-three.

As good as the Nets have been since New Year's Day, there are times when they can't make a basket for long stretches, and then things can tend to go bad quickly.

In the fourth quarter, the Nets missed 14 of 17 shots and managed just 12 points.

“It shouldn’t happen, but I thought we rushed a lot,” said Pierce, who had 22 points but just two in the fourth. “Turnovers, combination of those two things, pressing. You get in a playoff situation, one guy or two, three guys want to do it on their own instead of running our offense, executing. I think we got caught up into that.”

The Raptors decided they had seen enough of Johnson, who was averaging an effortless 23.7 points and 60.5 percent shooting in the first three games. Dwane Casey brought timely waves of double-teams, and Johnson was rendered ineffective, finishing with seven points on seven shots, none in the fourth.

Johnson will have to figure out how to be effective when the attention comes.

Casey also made another key Nets ingredient disappear. The super-aggressive Williams, who averaged 23 points in the Nets’ two wins in this series, was nowhere to be found in the second half. After scoring eight points in the first quarter, Williams managed just two more points the rest of the game, none in the second half. He was 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter.

The Nets won’t advance if this becomes a trend.

“I know I gotta be more aggressive,” said Williams, who had 22 points and eight assists in Game 3. “I know Joe was probably thinking the same thing. The last three quarters, I wasn’t really a factor, and so that’s a big part of it.”

While all this was going on, Kidd was also searching for the right combination to lift the Nets out of their frigid offensive state. He got a spark from Mirza Teletovic, who scored six points in the fourth. Kidd put Garnett in at the 8:28 mark and then Pierce for Teletovic with 6:37 remaining. Garnett hit four big free throws and assisted Pierce on a layup when the Nets needed every point they could get.

Kidd then took Garnett out with 4:43 left and the game tied at 79-79 to give his 37-year-old big man a breather. Garnett would return with 2:25 remaining, with the Nets down four and ultimately unable to shake out of their funk.

Kidd has stuck to his plan about keeping an eye on the big picture all season when it comes to Garnett's health for the entire postseason run.

“I trust Jason’s decision-making,” said Garnett, who had 10 points. “Whatever decision Jason makes, I’ll stand behind him 100 percent.”

Perhaps Kidd’s own demise in the playoffs last year after being overused by the Knicks still is fresh in his mind. Thus far, Kidd has resisted the urge to use Garnett longer than the 21 minutes KG logged in Game 4.

Whether Kidd's plan will work is just one of many questions we'll have answered by this weekend.

For now, the Nets have to start answering some in Game 5 at Toronto, or they will return to Brooklyn with their season on the brink.