TORONTO (Reuters) - Sparked by a stinging expletive the NBA playoffs got off to an explosive start as the Brooklyn Nets landed the first blow in a suddenly bitter Eastern Conference first round match-up with a 94-87 win over the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.
Out of the playoffs since 2008, Toronto’s return to the postseason was both eventful and controversial, upping the ante in the best-of-seven series.
With A list celebrities, including rappers Drake, Jay-Z and Beyonce, occupying courtside seats, an embarrassing technical malfunction and a jaw-dropping expletive delivered by Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri to thousands of frenzied supporters at a pre-game pep rally, the first game of the NBA postseason offered a little bit over everything.
A super-charged atmosphere greeted players and fans after allegations that the experienced Nets had tanked their final few regular season games to get a preferred match-up with the youthful Raptors rather than face the Chicago Bulls.
Despite topping the Atlantic Division and setting a franchise record with 48 victories, the Raptors have had a harder time winning respect than games. Meanwhile the Nets dropped four of their last five contests, including a 29-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their season finale, to cement a Toronto match-up.
The Nets denied any suggestion of subterfuge but Ujiri made his position crystal clear, shouting “Fuck Brooklyn!” at a fan rally outside Air Canada Center prior to the start of Game One.
“You know how I feel, I don’t like them, I apologise,” Ujiri, told a hastily arranged news conference at the half, in a half-hearted attempt to defuse the controversy. “I apologise it was the wrong choice of words out there.
“I apologise to the kids out there and the Brooklyn guys, nothing against them, I was just trying to get our fans going.”
There were no such apologises forthcoming from fans at a soldout ACC as they took great delight in tormenting Nets players, particularly Kevin Garnett.
The two teams split their regular season match-ups 2-2 with three of the four contests decided by four points or less and Game One offered every indication that series will be a tight and testy.
“As bad as we played we still put ourselves in position to win and that’s the approach we have to take, the series is not won in one game,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. “There’s still a lot of basketball to be played.
“We got the kinks out of the playoff atmosphere, first playoff game, all that stuff is to the side and now we have to get back and clean up the 19 turnovers.”
Led by Garnett and Paul Pierce, who have both won NBA championships, the veteran-laden Nets brought plenty of playoff experience to the postseason while three of Toronto’s starting five were making their first playoff appearances.
As expected the young Raptors displayed some playoff jitters while the Nets experience surfaced when it mattered most - with the game on the line.
With the Nets clinging to a 77-76 lead with five minutes to play, Garnett and Pierce took charge.
First Garnett hit a jump to give Brooklyn some breathing room before Pierce poured in nine straight points to put the Nets ups 88-81 with a minute to play.
“You just get that feeling... you’ve been in those situations a number of times,” said Pierce, who finished with 15 points while Joe Johnson and Deron Williams each contributed a game high 24.
“I don’t get rattled in the fourth quarter down the stretch, I’ve probably been in every playoff situation you can imagine, so I just stay calm and bring my calmness to the game.
“I just took advantage and stayed aggressive on the weak side, Kevin set picks for me. I was probably the third option but they took away the first and second and I was able to make plays.”
Game Two of the series goes Tuesday in Toronto and Raptor and NBA officials will try to correct the shot clock malfunction that caused a lengthy delay in the third quarter and forced the announcer to count down each 24 second possession when situation could not be corrected.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Gene Cherry