Lewenberg: Raptors suffer heartbreaker at hands of Durant

Josh Lewenberg, TSN 1050

3/22/2014 3:01:32 AM

TORONTO - The Raptors locker room was unnervingly quiet Friday evening, about how you would expect it after the implausible ending that sealed the team's fate in a double-overtime disaster.

In the back corner sat an inconsolable John Salmons, the elephant in the room.

Facing his locker, Salmons slouched forward in his chair, his head down in his hands and a long black towel draped over him.

One by one his teammates came over to comfort him, patting him on the back and offering words of encouragement. He didn't move. He remained in that position, perfectly still for over 30 minutes.

They win as a team and they lose as a team, but Salmons felt the brunt of it on this night.

What seemed like a sure victory late in the second overtime period began to unravel when an exceptional player made an exceptional shot. With the Raptors up by eight, 49 seconds away from an improbable victory and season-sweep of the 50-win Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant banked in a 27-foot three-point jumper.

Following another Thunder three - this one courtesy veteran assassin Derek Fisher - Salmons threw away an inbounds pass on the baseline, only to break up Durant's runner and get sent to the line. With less than 10 seconds remaining, now up two, Salmons clanked both free throws, paving the way for the league's leading scorer to do what he does best. Break hearts.

"Great players make great plays," Dwane Casey said of Durant, moments after his 31-foot pull-up dagger gave the Thunder a 119-118 victory.

Since coming over from Sacramento in December, Salmons has been praised for his poise and veteran savvy late in games, many of which he's helped them win. This was not his finest hour.

"He's a veteran (and) in those situations you've got to believe in him, that he's going to make those free throws," Casey said of Salmons, playing in place of Terrence Ross, who left the game with a hip contusion. "We had to go with John in that situation. He's been one of our best defenders in that situation, but it's not just one guy."

The Raptors, now 1-6 in OT this season, need to close out these types of games. Salmons needs to be better down the stretch, they know it and so does he.

It was three months ago, almost to this day that the Raptors pulled off their most impressive win of the season, a 104-98 victory in Oklahoma City. Coming off an OT win in Dallas a couple days prior and trailing by as many as 10 in the fourth, Toronto shocked the Thunder, who were undefeated at home at the time.

"It helped kick start us going forward," Casey said of that night. "It helped our chemistry, it helped our togetherness it helped blend in the old and the new guys together."

It would not have happened if not for Salmons. The 12-year vet spearheaded his new team's comeback, scoring nine points in the final quarter. After the game his teammates raved about his leadership and calming effect on the floor. Kyle Lowry gave him the game ball.

Like Patrick Paterson - still out with an injured elbow - Greivis Vasquez, who was spectacular before fouling out Friday, and Chuck Hayes, Salmon's fingerprints are all over the team's resurgence and that should not be forgotten, internally or externally.

The Raptors proved something to themselves in OKC that night. They proved that they belonged. Three months later, clinging onto the East's third seed and top spot in the Atlantic Division, they fell just short of proving something to everybody else.

For whatever reason the franchise and its fan base has been battered by losses of the devastating variety to the point in which they're almost immune to them. Toronto has lost 10 straight overtime games at home, an NBA record.

"It does (hurt)," Casey admitted, "but we can't let it."

"We can't let this game (give us a) hangover. (It's) a big learning experience for our guys. You're playing with one of the top teams in the league, one of the top players... and you give yourself a chance to win in (double) overtime."

KD the magnificent

It seems impossible to fathom that Friday once started off as a slow night for Durant. The Thunder forward made just three of his 12 first-half shots but once Russell Westbrook went down in the third quarter - colliding with Lowry and spraining his surgically repaired right knee - Durant, with the help of some generous officiating, completely took over.

Durant scored 51 and finished with 12 rebounds and seven assists, getting to the line 19 times and extending his streak of 25 or more points to 34 games, longest since Michael Jordan's 40-game run in 1986-87.

Amir's memorable game

Playing in his 500th career contest, Amir Johnson nearly willed his team to victory. The Raptors' forward recorded a double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds, connecting on 12 of his 19 shots in 50 minutes of action. He also spent the bulk of the second half guarding Durant, per his own request made after Ross exited with the hip injury.

"It was tough, man," he said, asked about defending the league's leading scorer. "He's my height, out there shooting from half court. There's not too much you can do but double team that."

"He did a great job," Casey added. "I felt for him. He's hurt. He was all over him, draped over him. (Durant) made a tough shot. There's nothing Amir did wrong."

The stat

For the first time since Jan. 13, 2013, the Raptors had four players score 20 or more points. Along with Johnson, DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 33 points, hitting all but one of his 16 free throws, while Lowry added 25 and Vasquez scored 21 off the bench.

The quote

"We couldn't go another overtime," Durant said. "I had to live with whatever happened. You had to get out of there. I wasn't trying to go to another overtime. I pulled up for it, it looked good when it left my hands and God guided that thing to the basket, man. That was the craziest game I've ever been a part of."