SACRAMENTO - The Raptors nearly got away with what should have been one of their most lopsided defeats of the season.
Down by 22 early in the fourth quarter, the Raptors - on the heels of yet another fierce comeback - had cut their deficit to six as Kyle Lowry launched what could have been a game-changing three pointer.
Kings rookie Ben McLemore closed out hard and the two collided just before Lowry's shot dropped and the whistle blew.
Had the bucket counted and, assuming Lowry then connects on the subsequent free throw, the Raptors would have been down by two with 25 seconds remaining. Instead, official Eric Lewis called the foul on the shooter. Lowry had kicked out his leg on the jumper, he explained.
The call was bold, to put it mildly, and in disbelief, Lowry's reaction earned him his second technical foul of the game. He was done for the night, heading straight to the locker room, and for all intents and purposes so, too, were the Raptors.
On the night, the Raptors were assigned three techs. They finished the game with more personal fouls (35) than Kings field goals (32).
Lowry, like the rest of his teammates, didn't say much following Wednesday's 109-101 loss in Sacramento. What he did say spoke volumes.
"I can't say what I really want to say," Lowry commented, biting his tongue. "It's as simple as that."
They've all lived through this narrative before, most recently in Portland this past weekend. Questionable officiating aside - they've seen their fair share of that, too - slow starts followed by one last-ditch effort to save the day have become the norm.
It's a bad habit that the likes of Indiana and Miami can get away with because they're Indiana and Miami. When the Raptors play with fire, more often than not, they'll get burned.
Dwane Casey, moments after lacing into his players in the locker room, could have gone after the officials but wisely chose to save his money and direct his angst at the team. Correct what you can control was the mindset, and the Raptors have displayed a few glaring faults worth correcting.
"We haven't done anything, I've been repeating this, we haven't done anything in this league yet to come out and play in second gear until we try to turn it on," said the Raptors' coach, his team giving up 92 points and trailing by 20 after three quarters Wednesday. "We're not that good and, until we have that disposition from start to finish, we're going to be disappointed a lot. I've said that warning, I've given that warning and like I just told them, they have to decide how they want to live."
The emotions of the evening got the better of them. On a night in which seven players - including the Kings' Rudy Gay - faced their former team for the first time since December's trade, Sacramento came out with the focus that escaped the Raptors. "It's a business" is a phrase that was uttered over and over on both sides leading up to the much-anticipated reunion between Gay and the Raptors, but only one team followed through on it.
"We're out hugging, giving [high] fives and all that," said a disappointed Casey. "This is a business and I didn't think our disposition from start to finish was in the fight mode, the hungry-team mode."
The Raptors had rallied around Gay as he made his first trip back to Memphis earlier in the season and the Kings did the same Wednesday. The former Raptors forward and leading scorer had a double-double of 24 points and 10 rebounds, but he didn't do it alone because he didn't have to. DeMarcus Cousins scored 25 and Isaiah Thomas added 23. Combined, the three Kings accounted for 41 of the Kings' 51 free throw attempts. Toronto made just 24 trips to the line.
"It's about putting your body on someone," Casey said. "The fundamental box-out, going to get it, getting to rebounds, all the little things that you have to do. And then you put them on the line 51 times because either you're late or out of position."
Just like it did in Portland on Saturday, Toronto's defence took the first half off. The Kings - a 16-win team going into the evening - scored 30 points in the first quarter and 37 in the second. By halftime, four of their five starters were in double figures.
The Raptors are a resilient bunch, sure. Comeback specialist Steve Novak checked in and promptly knocked down three triples. They made a game of it, as they've been known to do, but when you rely on the miraculous, you leave yourself vulnerable to the unpredictable nature of crunch time in the NBA. Things happen. In Portland, it was a relatively unforced turnover on the game's final possession. In Sacramento, it was a bad call.
The visitors' locker room in Sleep Train Arena - easily the coziest in the league - was filled with frustrated players, packed together like sardines. They had every reason to be frustrated, but as Casey stressed to them, they need to look inward.
"We got guys who are going to fight to the end, but we can't let ourselves get down by 20 and think we are going to come back every time," said John Salmons, one of four Raptors who came over in the trade from Sacramento. "It's not going to happen every time."
"Like I told the guys in the locker room, it was probably the worst game we've played since I got here," said Chuck Hayes, another former Kings player. "This one's probably going to [cause us to] lose a couple hours of sleep but we've got to get over it."