SLOWED BY FOUL trouble and struggling with his shot, Paul Pierce still found a way to come up big for the Brooklyn Nets. And, right when they needed him most.
Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's shot from the lane on the final play of the game, and the visiting Nets held off the Toronto Raptors, 104-103, in Game 7 yesterday to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," Pierce said. "I saw him split the defenders, I saw him go up, I went up with him.
"I got my hand on the ball - game over."
The Nets will begin the conference semifinals at Miami tomorrow night, facing the two-time defending NBA champion Heat.
Pierce had more fouls (three) than points (none) in the second half, but his only block of the game punctuated a hard-fought series win for the Nets.
Leading by one, Brooklyn used its final timeout after failing to inbound the ball. On the second opportunity, Shaun Livingston tried a lob pass to Pierce, but Terrence Ross got a hand on the ball and then knocked it off Pierce and out of bounds for a turnover.
"I rushed it a little bit," Livingston said. "I'm thinking Paul is going to hold him off. He kind of slipped there. Once he slipped, it was a jump ball and Terrence Ross is probably the last guy you want to throw a jump ball to."
Toronto used a timeout and gave the ball to Lowry, whose driving shot was blocked by Pierce as time expired. Lowry lay prone in the key as the Nets surged onto the court in celebration.
"I really didn't have a great offensive game," Pierce said. "I was in foul trouble for most of the night. Sometimes you've got to find ways to help your ballclub win."
Nets coach Jason Kidd said Brooklyn's defense "bent a little" but didn't break, thanks mostly to Pierce's clutch play.
"Paul said it best, that's why he's here, to make plays," Kidd said. "He didn't have a great game, but it only takes one play to help a team win and that's what he did tonight."
Brooklyn went 4-0 against Miami in the regular season, but that didn't mean much to Brooklyn's Kevin Garnett.
"That goes out the window," he said. "This is the postseason. They're playing very well. They went right through Charlotte without a beat and they have a lot of confidence."
Joe Johnson scored 13 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Nets. Marcus Thornton scored 17, Garnett had 12 points and 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the series, and Deron Williams added 13 points. "Joe has kept us alive this whole series," Garnett said.
Amir Johnson fouled out with 20 points and 10 rebounds for Toronto, which trailed by 10 with just over 6 minutes remaining before storming back and having a chance to win it at the buzzer.
"They pushed us to the brink," Livingston said.
Lowry finished with 28 points and DeMar DeRozan 18 for the Raptors, who fell to 0-2 in franchise history when playing in a Game 7. Toronto lost Game 7 of the conference semifinals to the Sixers in 2001.
"We battled," Amir Johnson said. "We just ran out of time."
* At San Antonio, Tony Parker scored 32 points and the Spurs led by as many as 31 on their way to 119-96 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, closing out a tense first-round series in seven games.
Manu Ginobili scored 20 points, Danny Green added 16 points and Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard had 15 points apiece for San Antonio. The Spurs advance to face the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, who upset the Houston Rockets in a six-game series.
Dirk Nowitzki had 22 points and nine rebounds to lead Dallas.
Last season ended for the Spurs with a Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. Facing a much earlier end, San Antonio rode a raucous home crowd and overwhelmed Dallas in the deciding game of a physical series.
There were two technical fouls and two flagrant fouls in Game 7 and two more flagrants reversed upon review.
Parker was assessed a technical with 31.6 second left in the first quarter after making a layup on and jawing with former teammate DeJuan Blair as the two ran down the court. They had been talking smack to each other all series and Parker was clearly frustrated with the hard fouls committed by Blair on his drives earlier in the series.
"I just knew that I had to be aggressive if we wanted to have a chance to win the game because of the strategy that the Mavericks chose," Parker said. "They just dared me to score."
Blair was later assessed a flagrant foul for elbowing Ginobili in the face on a drive. After the foul, Blair stared down San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who was screaming at officials over the severity of the foul. The flagrant foul energized the Spurs, who went on a 14-2 run to take a 51-27 lead with 8 minutes remaining in the first half.