The setting could not have been better.
Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 19,800 at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night, all that stood between the Toronto Raptors and a ticket to the playoffs, for the first time since 2008, was a win over the visiting Boston Celtics.
Two nights earlier, the Raptors defeated the Celtics in Boston and would have had their postseason berth locked up, but when the New York Knicks won in Sacramento, those plans had to be put on hold. Just as well, perhaps, as there is something to be said for a chance to seal the deal in front of the home fans.
In this rematch of sorts, the Celtics brought a hard-nosed, scrappy brand of basketball that they typically show the Raptors and also didn’t look the least bit like a team wanting a celebration to take place at their expense.
The anticipation of securing a playoff seed had been building in Toronto since the All-Star break, so it would have been a huge disappointment if the Raptors let this particular opportunity slip away. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that this game went right down to the wire, but the good news is that when the final buzzer sounded, the Raptors had a 105-103 win to show for their efforts.
With the victory, the Raptors improved to 41-31 and maintained their 2.5 game lead in the Atlantic Division on a night that saw the Brooklyn Nets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-97.
Clinching a spot was really a forgone conclusion for the Raptors. Now the tougher challenges of winning their division and securing home-court advantage await.
The Raptors looked sluggish as they fell behind 11-4 in the early going. Following a timeout, the Raptors showed more purpose at both ends of the floor and battled back to tie the game 14-14 midway through the first frame. From there, it was a back-and-forth exchange of lead changes and ties, until the final minute when the Raptors were able to create some space and take a 32-26 lead into the second quarter.
A hook shot off the glass by Greivis Vasquez extended the Raptors’ lead to 41-33 at the 8:33 mark of the second period, thereby creating an impression that the home side might be able to cruise to victory. However, the now 23-49 Celtics put their lottery plans on hold for a night and shifted into a competitive gear.
Jerryd Bayless, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger engineered a spurt of scoring and stingy defense to grab the lead at 51-50. This appeared to awake the sleepy Raptors. A running slam dunk by Jonas Valanciunas and a buzzer-beating putback by Tyler Hansbrough helped the Raptors close out the first half with a 56-53 advantage.
Toronto then appeared committed to putting the game away in the third quarter.
A balanced scoring attack, featuring the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross and Vasquez helped the Raptors regain the breathing room they had briefly enjoyed in the first half. Heading into the final frame, the Raptors were in front 85-73.
It turned out that the Raptors would need every bit of that cushion and more in the fourth quarter. The Celtics topped the Raptors 30-20 over the final 12 minutes and even did their best to spoil the party by going up 101-97 with just over three minutes to play.
Of course, all that did was allow the Raptors to win in heroic fashion.
After a timeout with 28 seconds remaining and the score tied 103-103 , Lowry dribbled near half-court until about the 0:10 mark. He was then able to shake his defender and get to the hoop for a contested layup. Lowry was not able to connect, but Amir Johnson swooped in, grabbed the rebound and converted the go-ahead bucket with seven seconds left in the game.
A 3-point attempt by Sullinger at the buzzer was way off the mark, triggering a celebration for the Raptors’ players and fans.
It was very fitting that Johnson scored the winning bucket as he and DeRozan are the longest-serving members of the team, dating back to the 2009-10 season.
When interviewed together following the game, Johnson and DeRozan expressed satisfaction over clinching a playoff spot, but were more so trying to stay level-headed because of the goals that lie ahead.
Stud Of The Game
The night didn’t start off too smoothly for DeRozan. He was limited to just over three minutes of playing time in the first quarter because he picked up two early fouls.
Despite his team leading 56-53 heading into halftime, the All-Star reserve had played only 10 minutes and chipped in a measly four points.
Fortunately for the Raptors, though, DeRozan’s night was just beginning. When all was said and done, he had logged a game-high 35 minutes and eclipsed all other scores with a game-high 30 points. DeRozan didn’t have the most efficient night from the field, connecting on just 12 of 27 attempts, but he did go six-for-six from the free throw line and managed to grab three rebounds and dish out four assists.
There is often a lot of good to be found in a player shaking off a rough start to come back and play a key role in winning the game.
Honorable mention also goes to Lowry who limped off the court and straight to the locker room after hurting his ankle in the second quarter. To the surprise of no one, he returned in the second half and was instrumental to the Raptors sneaking away with a victory.
The Raptors now head to the Sunshine State for a pair of games against opponents at opposite ends of the spectrum — the Orlando Magic on Sunday, followed by a tougher test on Monday against the Miami Heat.
DeRozan and Co. were narrowly defeated 102-97 in Miami on Jan. 5 and may be catching the Heat at a relatively good time as they are just 5-5 in their last 10 games.