TORONTO - With just over seven seconds left on the clock and Friday's game hanging in the balance, a sellout Air Canada Centre crowd rose to their feet, holding their breath in anticipation.
They've been holding their breath for six years now, but finally they can exhale.
As Celtics forward Jared Sullinger forced up a wild, off-balance runner, the building erupted. It was official. The Raptors are heading back to the post-season.
"We made it," shouted Amir Johnson repeatedly as the media filtered into Toronto's locker room.
"It's a satisfying, kind of overwhelming feeling," he described, following his team's 105-103 victory over Boston, officially snapping the Raptor'' five-year playoff drought. "It's been six years since this team, this organization made it to the playoffs. This team has worked so hard. We deserved it. We've been playing our butts off, playing through injuries. We've had our ups and downs."
"We've made it."
Not lost on the team was the fact that they stole a game, their 41st victory of the season, that probably shouldn't have come down to the final possession.
Down by four with under three minutes to play, it looked like the Raptors would have to hope for a New York Knicks loss later in the evening or wait until Sunday to punch their ticket to the playoffs. They've been resilient all year, so why wouldn't they be now? First DeMar DeRozan drained a fadeaway jumper, then Johnson hit the game-winning put-back layup.
"It was fitting," Dwane Casey said.
DeRozan and Johnson, the team's longest tenured players, were responsible for Toronto's final four points. For them, this moment was a little sweeter.
"It means a lot, honestly, man," said DeRozan, the Raptors fifth-year guard, who will make his post-season debut next month. "Especially for me and Amir and what we've been through here with the tough seasons, through the ups and downs and the struggles. We stuck with it."
The only player in the building that could give a firsthand account of the Raptors' last playoff experience - a five-game, first round defeat at the hands of the Orlando Magic in 2007-08 - was Celtics forward Kris Humphries. Only four other players from that team are currently on an NBA roster, but DeRozan and Johnson – who arrived the year after – have both been in Toronto long enough to appreciate what a night like this means to the franchise, the city and the Raptors' long-suffering fan base.
"It was all worth it," said DeRozan. "These fans stuck behind us every single day and they're going to continue to do so. That's the reason why we work extremely hard. Our fans definitely push us."
Of course, it was just a formality. It was inevitable, only a matter of time. Toronto wasn't going to go winless in its remaining games, just like the Knicks were not going to run the table the rest of the way. Still, they have refused to count their chickens before they hatched and for that you can credit the humility and focus of their head coach.
Moments after the win, a loud chorus of applause could be heard from outside the team's locker room. Finally, they could celebrate, albeit behind closed doors. Even Casey, who wouldn't pat himself on the back and likely never will, found a way to indulge in what the evening represented.
"We're excited about it," he admitted.
"My hat is off to all the guys who've come through here," said Casey, crediting MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum as well as former general manager Bryan Colangelo for their contributions to the process. "To DeMar DeRozan [and] Amir Johnson, who have been through it all and for the fans, the fans for understanding and being patient. I know they didn't see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it's a process. You don't build Rome overnight in this league. I''s very difficult to do. You talk about rebuilding, it's a hard gig."
The Raptors have surpassed every rational expectation, going 35-19 since the trade of Rudy Gay in early December. It's been a season of firsts for a franchise on the cusp of its 20th birthday, a franchise many pundits wrote off for dead after selling off its highest-paid player.
"Everybody who writes something on a piece of paper isn't always right, that's how I look at it," said DeRozan, the first-time All-Star. He's right. He and his team have proven a lot of people wrong.
As the Celtics made their run, cutting their deficit - once 14 - down and ultimately taking the lead, DeRozan came through yet again. With Kyle Lowry slowed by an ankle injury he sustained in the first half, DeRozan picked him up and scored 24 of his game-high 30 points in the final 24 minutes. 16 of his 27 career 30-point games have come this season.
With 10 games remaining and their spot in the pos-tseason locked up, the team can shift its attention to seeding but most importantly, going into the playoffs healthy and with momentum.
"We can't be satisfied," Casey repeated, with his team moving into soul possession of the third seed following the Chicago Bulls' loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. "We still wan't to continue on and we've still got to get better."
Lowry's injury scare
With three minutes to go in the second quarter, Lowry limped to the locker room after turning his right ankle while back-pedaling to get back on defence.
After being examined by the medical staff, the Raptor' point guard and most important player was able to return, starting the second half with his ankle taped up.
As per usual, Lowry shrugged off whatever pain he was in after the win.
"I'm a little sore, but I'm fine," he said after scoring nine points in 33 minutes. "I'm okay. Good to go."
Revenge of the second unit
Naturally, Casey was frustrated with his under-performing bench after they were outscored 51-7 in Boston on Wednesday.
"I challenged them before the game," said the Raptors' coach. "I got on them about their productivity or lack thereof in the Boston game. I challenged them. I said, 'Look, guys want playing time, when the opportunity comes, you've got to do something, whether it's defence, knocking somebody down, taking a charge, whatever'. And they came through."
Greivis Vasquez, who scored all seven of the bench's points on Wednesday, led the team's reserves with 15, but Chuck Hayes and John Salmons were also productive on both ends of the floor.
Combined, the three former Kings - along with Tyler Hansbrough, who logged five minutes - totalled 28 points on the night.
Patterson nearing a return
Although he missed his 12th straight game, Patrick Patterson has been making progress and appears to be on the verge of returning from his right elbow injury.
Although the Raptors haven't had much practice time to get Patterson back up to speed - a concern Casey expressed before Friday's game - the Raptors' forward has been able to participate in smaller, three-on-three scrimmages since being cleared for contact earlier this week.
"[His] conditioning is probably going to be step behind a little bit," Casey acknowledged. "It's not going to be where he was before stepping away, so that's going to be expected. That's why now we need to kind of get him back in rhythm and with the lack of practice time it's going to have to be in a game situation."
Patterson could be back in uniform this weekend in Florida, as the Raptors begin a back-to-back set with the Magic on Sunday before visiting the Heat Monday evening.
With their 41st win of the season, the Raptors secured a .500 record for the sixth time in franchise history and first since 2007-08, the last year they qualified for the playoffs.
"My grandmother called," Johnson told the media after his team clinched a spot in the playoffs. "She said that she was proud."