Lewenberg: Bittersweet celebration as Raptors clinch division

Josh Lewenberg
4/12/2014 1:31:26 AM
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TORONTO - As the Raptors wandered into the locker room, heads down after Friday's loss to the Knicks, they found a red t-shirt draped over each of their chairs.

"Atlantic is ours," read the shirts, delivered by the league that afternoon.

Moments earlier they learned that, for the second time in franchise history, the Raptors will be crowned division champions, also earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The celebration was not exactly how they expected it.

"It's sweet and sour," said Kyle Lowry following Toronto's 108-100 loss to the Knicks. Shortly after the Raptors' game went final, the Nets would fall to Atlanta at home, in effect clinching the division for Toronto.

"It's very sweet that we won the division," the Raptors' point guard explained, "but it sucks that we didn't win it [with] a win. But we'll take the division [title] any day."

It's been a long and sometimes strange road for this Raptors team and in that way Friday's bizarre post-game proceedings seemed almost fitting. No one was quite sure how to feel.

Toronto's defeat, at the hands of a desperate Knicks teams fighting for their playoff lives, exposed a series of lingering concerns for Dwane Casey and his club. Meanwhile, with Chicago coming back from an 18-point deficit to knock off the Pistons, the Raptors fell out of the Eastern Conference's third seed.

Do they care who they'll face in the opening round of the postseason, beginning next weekend, on Apr. 19 or 20?

"No, not at all," Lowry stated.

"We've proved we can play with anybody in this league," DeRozan added. "We understand that, so it really doesn't matter to us."

He was not alone. The consensus in the room was just that, no, they're not stressing over their first-round opponent, or so they say. In the grand scheme of things it could be the difference between the team's second ever series victory or an early vacation, a reality they all seem to grasp, given their expressions of discontent upon learning that Chicago had won.

If the season ended today, Toronto - the fourth seed - would host fifth-placed Brooklyn, a daunting matchup for the inexperienced Raptors, although home-court would play a big factor.

"You definitely want to have home-court advantage, because our fans get into it," Amir Johnson said. The Raptors have won 22 of their last 30 games at the Air Canada Centre. "It's always tough to go into someone's house and win a game."

It would be especially tough to win in Brooklyn's gym, should they meet up in the postseason. The Net's loss to Atlanta Friday was just their third at home since the calendar turned to 2014.

Whomever they face, the Raptors have some work to do if they hope to advance. The Knicks were the hungrier team on Friday, they wanted it more and Toronto was never able to match that level of intensity. Their inexperience showed against the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, a less than encouraging sign if they do end up seeing the veteran Nets next weekend.

Defensively they were a step slow, they got outworked in the paint once again and for the 11th time in their last 19 contests the Raptors surrendered at least 100 points.

"We saw it from them for 48 minutes," Casey said of the Knicks, who stayed in playoff contention with the victory, although they're one loss or Hawks' win away from being eliminated. "You have to shake their hands. They came in and made the shots they needed to make."

The Raptors, trailing by one to start the fourth, went nearly seven minutes without recording a field goal in the final quarter, squandering an opportunity to tie the franchise win record in front of their home fans.

In the end, the sellout crowd could not see their team celebrate a division title in the way they had hoped. Still, for a fan base that has gone six years without watching a single playoff game, Friday was - as Lowry puts it - a "sweet and sour" day.

"It's great for the fans, I'm excited for the fans," Casey said, upon learning his team had won the division, as the Nets game become a final during his post-game press conference. "I'm excited about it. It's good for us. But I'm more concerned about getting better and continuing to play."

The Raptors have indeed come a long way and the perfect reminder of that, Andrew Wiggins, was sitting baseline in the first row. Six months ago, Wiggins, not a division title, seemed like the end goal. But here they are.

"We still want more," said DeRozan, who led the Raptors with 26 points on Friday. "We're not satisfied with nothing [yet]. We understand we have much more basketball to play and a long road to go and we want to take advantage of it, not just get there and say we got there, where people doubted us. We definitely feel like we can go in and make some noise."

The Raptors have three games remaining, in Detroit Sunday, at home to the Bucks Monday and their season finale in New York on Wednesday. Chicago also has three to go, a game in New York, a home tilt with the Magic and their final contest in Charlotte. With the Raptors owning the tiebreaker, they sit one game back, needing the Bulls to drop at least one of those games for an opportunity to regain the third seed. Until then, Chicago is in the driver's seat and Toronto can only hope that they hit a speed bump.

Another career night for Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas continued his recent stretch of standout performances Friday in a tough matchup with former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler. After setting a new career mark in scoring with 26 points in Wednesday's win over the 76ers, the Raptors' sophomore centre grabbed a career-best 21 boards to go along with 14 points against the Knicks.

Once again, Valanciunas was aggressive and assertive, showing continued growth and a newfound level of confidence, recording his team-leading 24th double-double of the campaign.

Amir's return

Although Johnson started in his return from a three-game absence, resting a lingering right ankle injury, the Raptors' forward played just 17 minutes and was held scoreless, looking a step slow as he worked his way back into game shape.

Casey said the limited playing time was not a direct result of the injury or any setback but was more about him struggling to find his wind after sitting out for over a week.

"I felt good," Johnson said after the game. "My ankle was alright, a little sore but it was just me getting back into my groove. I felt like I was a step slow but I have these last couple games and I'm pretty sure I'll pick it up."

Milestones for Lowry and DeRozan

With a triple in the first quarter, his 178th of the campaign, Lowry set a new franchise record for most three-pointers made in a season, passing Morris Peterson who had accomplished the feat in 2005-06.

Lowry, 4-for-7 from long distance on the night, has come a long way in that regard, hitting the three-ball at a 38 per cent rate this year after struggling with his jump shot early in his career.

"It's part of my game now," said the eighth-year point guard. "You can't just expect me to be a driver like my first couple years in the league. Now, it's a threat. It's definitely a big thing for me to get as an individual goal. I'll take it and look at it after the season and take in all the things that we accomplished and I accomplished."

DeRozan also made his mark on the Raptors' record book, besting the team's single season mark for made free throws late in the fourth quarter. DeRozan, who hit 12 of 13 attempts from the line Friday, is third in the league in free throws made and passes Chris Bosh's previous record of 504 previously set in 2008-09.

"It means a lot," said the Raptors' all-star guard. "Only so many guys shoot the amount of free throws I shoot. It's an honour when you look at the names that's up there of guys that shoot free throws at a high clip. It's definitely big. You can't take that away. Hopefully I can beat the record again next season."

The stat

The Raptors have made 10 or more three-point shots in each of their last five games. Half of their 30 field goals on Friday came from beyond the arc, as they matched a season-high with 15 treys.

The quote

"It's funny how the expectations change," Casey said. "We go from developing and now all at once we lost to Carmelo Anthony and a team like this and the world [is collapsing]. We still have some growing to do. We have a great foundation from where we are. Now we just want to be ready to go into the playoffs with some momentum."

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