BROOKLYN - With just over four minutes to go in the third quarter, Amir Johnson sat on the bench, wincing in pain as he watched the game and, in effect, his team's season slip away.
That seemed like an appropriate time to get a head start on the Raptors' playoff obituary. Their first-half onslaught had evaporated, the 17-point lead was no more and Johnson, like Kyle Lowry, was battling foul trouble and a myriad of ailments.
At that point the momentum, if you believe in such things, belonged to the hosting Brooklyn Nets. This upstart Raptors' team had been in similar situations throughout the season - fighting for their lives, backs up against the wall - but, tied going into the fourth quarter of a critical Game 4, this would be their biggest and most revealing test yet. They had a new audience, a brighter spotlight, a bigger stage and 12 minutes to prove something that they themselves already knew.
"Everybody has something on their body that definitely hurts," said Johnson, who injured his knee in a failed attempt to draw a charge on the Nets' Paul Pierce, "but we keep playing, we keep fighting. It's not the time to hold back now. We've got to keep going."
The Raptors held Brooklyn without a field goal for the final six minutes, without a point for the last five and in doing so they showed more character than they had at any point in this series.
"That's just us, man," DeMar DeRozan said after scoring a team-high 24 points in the Raptors' scrappy 87-79 win on Sunday, tying their best-of-seven opening round series up at 2-2. "We're definitely resilient, we're not going to give up until the game's over. We're going to fight through."
Just as things were at their most bleak - Lowry had picked up his fifth foul and Johnson, still on the bench, was also saddled with five - the Raptors got serious. Slightly out of character, DeRozan drew a charge, then he took another. Was that a first?
"Nah, I don't think so," the all-star guard said with a smirk on his face as Lowry, sitting next to him, chuckled. "I hope it's not."
Then Lowry, throwing caution to the wind, reached in and poked the ball away from Pierce. Johnson followed suit and in a familiar scene - one that earned him his fifth foul and a sore knee earlier - stepped in to take the charge.
Both Lowry and Johnson were one foul away from spending the rest of the game watching from the sidelines, one hit to the knee away from spending the rest of the night on the trainer's table. Neither player seemed willing to allow his team to lose.
"They're fighters," said Jonas Valanciunas. "They're soldiers. They go on the court anyway. So it's good when you have those types of guys on your team."
Everyone is dealing with bumps and bruises to some degree at this point in the season. Who wasn't limping out there tonight, Valanciunas was asked. "Julyan Stone," the young centre said with a smile. But there was Lowry, limping up and down the court between possessions, lying next to the bench to stay loose when he wasn't in the game. He had tweaked his reoccurring right knee injury early in Game 3, on top of all the nicks he's accumulated over a long season, but he gutted it out again. Where would his team be without him?
"We would have probably got in a fight if I tried to take him out of the game," coach Dwane Casey joked. "He's dealing with a lot right now and he came through with flying colours. He fought through foul trouble, a little bit of adversity throughout the game and still came through.”
Lowry scored 12 of his 22 points in the second half and once again, with the game on the line, his team resembled their point guard, their leader, their best player.
"I am not surprised at all that Kyle was limping around, he's a warrior, he's everything to this team," said Chuck Hayes. "The guy gives it his all, we just feed off of him. Then we tease him about it after, he's going to have probably every ice bag in here on his body."
"We don't give up man, we're some fighters," Hayes continued. "We play like the underdog, we were the underdog probably all year, including this series. I don't know, we just go out there and play for each other."
Go ahead, underestimate them, disrespect them and count them out. They feed off it. If respect is earned in the postseason, perhaps the Raptors are starting to turn heads.
"We understand that this is a group that's not going to back down, that's not going to give up," Pierce said after the game. "They've earned a lot of people's respect around the league. Just because you don't have a lot of playoff experience doesn't mean you're not a good team. You can learn on the fly."
They've done just that, now it's a whole new ball game. The Raptors will return to Toronto and their raucous crowd at the Air Canada Centre after reclaiming home-court advantage for what has become a best-of-three set, beginning with Wednesday's Game 5.
Have they played their best basketball? "No," Lowry and DeRozan answered in unison, but there is a growing sense of belief in the room coinciding with an ambiance of nervousness that spread throughout Barclays Center as Toronto hit back on Sunday. The Raptors may not be in over their heads after all.
"We're on a mission," Casey said. "We're not just here trying to win a game. We want to make sure we stay poised, stay focused on our business. That's what we've been about all year."