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Lewenberg: Raptors escape with narrow Game 5 victory

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Josh Lewenberg
5/1/2014 9:25:30 AM
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TORONTO - As over 20,000 shell-shocked Raptors fans finally exhaled, juggling their emotions after a bizarre evening at the Air Canada Centre, Dwane Casey laced into his team in a nearby locker room.

His post-game pep talk will "remain in-house", which usually means it was R-rated in nature.

Did this feel like a win, Amir Johnson was asked after it was all said and done.

"Of course," he exclaimed, taking issue with the question. "What? Yes! Did I check the box score wrong? We definitely won." 

"Does it feel like a win? What?"

The box score read 115-113, a pivotal win for the Raptors, who took a 3-2 series lead Wednesday and now sit on the cusp of advancing to the Conference Semifinals, but you wouldn't know if from taking in the head coach's post-game discourse.

"You wouldn't want to hear it," Casey said, asked about his emotions as his team squandered a 26-point lead in allowing the Nets to score 44 during a fourth-quarter collapse that was very nearly fatal. "We just didn't play smart. They are a very veteran team, they are going to take advantage of the mistakes you make. We wrote the book on the mistakes in the fourth quarter."

"Every mistake that you could think about, we made in the fourth quarter."

Just about. The Raptors' lead was 22 going into the final frame before their previously spotless performance began to unravel in a hurry. With a lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and reserves Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson for all but eight seconds in the quarter, the Nets hit 13 of their 21 shots, including five of nine attempts from three-point range. They got into the paint and to the line at will, putting on a clinic offensively. Veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett did not play a second.

With just over three minutes remaining, Toronto's nightmare became reality. The sellout crowd that had rocked the building all night, the mob of white-shirted Raptor zealots that shouted "Broooook-lyn" minutes earlier - mimicking a chant made famous at Nets home games - they went dead silent. The Nets' Johnson drained a three to tie the game and Toronto was on the ropes.

Visions of their franchise-worst 27-point collapse in a December loss to Golden State flashed through everyone's mind. Infamous Raptors' losses of the oh-so-painful past, the beloved Maple Leafs and their tragic Game 7 demise. The city has seen it all. So how would this team let them down?

Toronto led by five with nine seconds left, a semi-comfortable scenario provided they refrain from doing something uncommonly foolish. Just don't give up a three or commit a foul. Naturally, they did both. As Williams swung the ball to Anderson in the corner, the Raptors' Johnson lunged at him, committing his sixth foul and surrendering the rare four-point play, Brooklyn's second of the quarter.

With six second to go, the Raptors now up by three, Casey opted to play it safe and send Blatche to the line for two shots. The right call. Intentionally missing the second free throw, Blatche was able to secure his own rebound before letting the Raptors off the hook in tossing the ball away.

"We can't live that way," said an irate Casey after the game. "We can't make this many mental mistakes."

Buzzer sounds and the Raptors win. The Raptors win? They had mucked it up in just about every way you could imagine, like a greatest hits of Raptor blunders, but they pulled it out. If that seems out of character with what we've come to expect from this franchise, so be it. Isn't that just the perfect representation of a season, an improbably playoff run that defies all semblance of logic?

"We made some boneheaded mistakes," Johnson admitted, "but we finished off the game and that's all that really matters."

This is a different team producing different results and a point guard who has a lot to do with that change in fortune.

"Honestly, he's a hell of player, man," DeMar DeRozan said of Kyle Lowry, who scored 36 points, a playoff career-high, also matching the most he's ever scored in an NBA game. "He's just a dog. He makes you want to bring your A-game every single night because you know he's going to lay it out there with them."

With DeRozan blanketed by multiple defenders all night, Lowry took over. Tied with a minute left, Lowry hit the biggest shot of the night, a step-back three-pointer, followed by another dagger from inside the paint on the subsequent possession.

"Sometimes it calls for that situation," said the point guard. "Usually it's [DeRozan] doing that but tonight the way they played him it gave me an opportunity to get to the basket and get some shots off down the stretch. Our teammates count on me and him to make the right decisions, make the big plays and tonight it was fortunate enough they were guarding him tightly and I got it going a little bit."

Lowry wouldn't let his team lose, willing them to their most important victory of the campaign, and no one seems the least bit surprised, nor should they.

"Every time he's out there on the floor I'm going to give it my best effort," DeRozan added, "because I know he's going to do the same."

"We know there's not going to be no big blowouts either way because both teams are going to fight until the end," he continued. "It just shows you how much we've matured over the season and understanding what we have to do to stay in games and closeout games."

DeRozan became the first Raptors player to reach the 20-point plateau in four straight playoff games since Vince Carter in 2001, scoring 23 on Wednesday thanks in large part to another impressive showing from the free throw line, where he was 12-for-13.

For the first time in nearly 13 years that Raptors have taken the advantage in a playoff series, now they look to close it out in Brooklyn on Friday. 

"We're happy we won today but we've got to do a better job Friday," said Jonas Valanciunas, who had 16 points and six rebounds Wednesday.

"We're here, we're excited about being in the playofffs, somewhere we haven't been before, a young team, expecting mistakes," Casey said. "We've got to crack the whip and learn from it. This is a hell of a time to start learning, going into Game 6 of the playoffs."

DeMar DeRozan (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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