TORONTO - With both hands extended and a finger on each pointed skyward, Paul Pierce was beaming, and with good reason.
One of those hands had just blocked Kyle Lowry's potential series-winning runner in the lane at the final buzzer, sealing the Nets' 104-103 Game 7 victory over the Raptors -- a wild finish that surely had some at Air Canada Centre looking for the nearest oxygen tank.
After trimming a nine-point deficit with 31/2 minutes remaining to one with 8.8 seconds to play, the Raptors got the ball back when the Nets' Shaun Livingston committed a turnover with 7.9 seconds left. But Pierce's defensive gem allowed the most expensive team in NBA history to exhale after avoiding a hugely disappointing exit from the playoffs in this season of lofty expectations.
It also set up a new matchup dripping in story lines. By dispatching third-seeded Toronto, the sixth-seeded Nets earned the right to meet the two-time defending champion Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals beginning Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"It felt great," said Pierce, who celebrated the moment by hurling his sweaty headband into the stands. "I've said it before, it feels so much better when you do it on the road because you know you've earned it.
"I mean, everybody is against you. I can't even say some of the things they were calling me out there. To come away with a win, it means so much more because you know you gave everything. You were against not only the 15,000 in the building but you were against the other 15,000 sitting outside.
"Nobody is with you. So you've got this small group of guys in the locker room cheering for one another, you've got 15, 16 guys, 20 guys including coaches and staff here. That's all we've got in this building -- 20 people who want us to win. It feels great when you come out a winner in that type of environment."
Still, that was no sure thing, even when the Nets went ahead 97-87 with 5:38 left on a 20-footer by Joe Johnson (26 points).
A 14-5 run allowed Toronto to get within a point, and the Raptors highlighted the Nets' porous late-game defense with a pair of easy layups by Lowry and Terrence Ross.
Ross' basket made it 104-103, and when he stole Livingston's inbounds pass and caromed it off Pierce and out of bounds with 7.9 seconds left, the jubilant crowd of 20,457 figured the Nets were about to gift-wrap this one.
After a timeout, Lowry (28 points) tried to maneuver into the lane, but Kevin Garnett poked the ball away before Lowry regained possession and put up the shot that Pierce rejected.
"We knew it was probably going either to [DeMar] DeRozan or Kyle," Garnett said, "and Kyle tried to split the defense. I just ripped him a little bit, cut the ball out of his hands, and then I see Paul go over the top for the block."
With his left hand, too.
Pierce said he couldn't remember making a game-sealing rejection. "Nah, I don't think at this magnitude," he said. "On the road. Game 7. You're playing for your lives and you've got to sell out for your team.
"I really didn't have a great offensive game. I was in foul trouble most of the night and sometimes you've got to find ways to help your ballclub win.
"I saw him go up, I went up with him, got my hand on the ball. Game over."
Now, instead of heading home, the Nets are South Beach-bound.
"It's good," Deron Williams said. "It's a great feeling. We lost a Game 7 last year. To be able to turn around and win a Game 7 on the road this year means a lot for this franchise. We're excited about an opportunity to play the defending champs."
As Garnett said: "They've been sitting and they've been waiting, so let's get it on."