Lewenberg: Raptors unveil division banner on record night

Josh Lewenberg, TSN 1050
4/15/2014 1:06:30 AM
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TORONTO - In a play that sort of typified the evening and maybe even their season, Raptors' point guard Kyle Lowry led a second-quarter fast break by delivering a one-handed bounce pass to Greivis Vasquez, who lateraled to the trailing Amir Johnson.

Johnson, the beneficiary of a couple perfectly placed passes, capped off the sequence with a tomahawk slam that put Toronto on top by 20 points.

Fouled on the landing, Johnson's momentum carried him into the first row, where he proudly pointed to the team name on his jersey and slapped hands with fans seated on the baseline.

It was that kind of night.

The proceedings began with the unveiling of a second Atlantic Division Championship banner and concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation just over two hours later.

The Raptors - trotting off the court following a 110-100, wire-to-wire win over the Bucks - had set a new franchise record with their 48th victory of the season, while also going 15 games above the .500 mark for the first time in team history.

"It's definitely great because we fed off our fans," said DeMar DeRozan, who stood centre court and counted down from three, as the banner was uncovered from the rafters atop Air Canada Centre, hanging adjacent to the one they had earned in 2006-07.

The final home game of the season - Fanapolooza, as it's been dubbed - had been a somber event for five years running. It was an opportunity for the Raptors' loyal, albeit frustrated supporters to come bid farewell to a team that had let them down, a chance to vent their disappointment but mostly to guzzle up free t-shirts, pizza and whatever swag the remorseful organization was offering up.

Most importantly, it meant the end of basketball in Toronto for another long summer.

Not the case on Monday. Monday night was a celebration, a show of appreciation from a starved fan base to a team that has captured their admiration with resilience and hard play. It was a night of reflection, looking back at where they came from and rejoicing in what they've accomplished. It wasn't a goodbye. They'll see them again in five or six days.

"We've got to have some of the most devoted fans in the league," he continued. "I've been here through the struggles and tough times and our fans were still right there with us on this journey. So it definitely felt good to share it with them because they played a major part in it as well."

Although DeRozan was in uniform, available to play if it would have come to that, he was given the night off to rest going into his playoff debut next weekend. As it turns out, they didn't need him, not against the league-worst Bucks on Monday night.

It was the 11th time they've played without a member of their first unit - a group that has won more games than any starting five in franchise history - and the 11th time they've come away victorious.

With the Raptors' all-star guard cheerleading from the sidelines, Greivis Vasquez started in his stead, pacing the team with 25 points and seven assists.

"It was a fun win," said Vasquez, who knocked down his first six shots, five of them from beyond the arc. "They gave me a chance to start, I just went out there and did my job."

Performances like his, like Tyler Hansbrough's double-double in 20 minutes, are a big part of what's gotten them to this point. DeRozan has carried this team more often than not, so too has Lowry - who scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half - but when one or both have needed it, someone has generally been waiting and ready to back them up.

"All it takes is the right chemistry, the right group of guys and you can do whatever it takes," DeRozan said. "You don't need no big name players, you don't need this, that and the third, what people supposedly say you need. We're proof of that and we continue to keep growing, keep learning and keep building. On to the next step."

The next step, as the Raptors' leading scorer puts it, is Wednesday's regular season finale in New York. With a win over the Knicks, Toronto would lock down the Eastern Conference's third seed and face whomever slots into sixth, most likely Washington. The Raptors would fall to fourth and play the fifth place team - likely Brooklyn - if they should lose on Wednesday and the Bulls defeat the Bobcats in Charlotte.

"I'm more worried about us, more so than who we play," said Casey. "It's about us, about our health, the rest, whatever we decide to do in that situation. If we play Brooklyn we play Brooklyn. If we play Washington we play Washington. There are no easy teams left in the playoffs right now. All of the teams are very capable. Brooklyn is probably more playoff-ready. But we can't control that. And I'm not going into [Wednesday's] game trying to control that."

The Raptors' coach said he has not decided whether DeRozan - second in the NBA in minutes logged this year - will play in Wednesday's season finale.

Home sweet home

The Raptors will finish the season with 26 wins at home for the fourth time in franchise history. After dropping eight of their first 12 games at the ACC, they have become one of the toughest teams to beat on home court, winning 22 of 29 since the end of December.

"Coach definitely stressed to us, we've got to protect home court," DeRozan said of the turnaround. "That's big. We can't let teams come in here and think they can get wins. We really started taking it personally, understanding we've got to use our crowd to our advantage. Everybody bought in, so every time we were home we felt comfortable and felt that we could get any win."

"I think our guys have gotten better, matured, improved, I think more than anything else," Dwane Casey said of their success at home. "You should have the same approach whether you're on the road, playing on the moon, wherever you're playing you've got to have the same approach and our guys have done a good job of that, whether we're on the road or at home."

They were undefeated, 19-0 in games they led going into the fourth quarter in Toronto, something that should serve them well as they go into the first round of the playoffs with home-court advantage.

The stat

With their fourth straight win over Milwaukee, the Raptors swept the season series with the Bucks for the first time in team existence.

The quote

"We had group at the start of the season that was motivated, dedicated to winning," said Lowry, "and when everything didn't pan out we made a move and we got a group of guys who came in that really filled the voids that we needed. Everyone is on the same page.

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