With just previous five playoff trips in the franchise’s history—and none since 2008—it’s hard to see how they could.
Just as apparent as this greenness, though, have been the keys to one of the most dramatic turnarounds of the 2013-14 campaign: grit, heart, toughness and talent.
Both sides of that coin were on display in Toronto’s 115-113 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night. Everything surfaced over those wild 48 minutes: the good (building a 26-point advantage over the first 32-plus minutes), the bad (surrendering all of it over the next 14 minutes), the amazing (Kyle Lowry’s career-playoff-high 36 points.)
Yet, four quarters of madness equaled one oddly predictable plotline. The individual moments (Chuck Hayes’ one-legged miracle and both of Alan Anderson’s fourth-quarter four-point plays) often defied logic, but the macro-level ends and means almost seem scripted—and not in the conspiracy theorist’s way.
The Raptors played like a wide-eyed bunch learning the limits of their abilities. They bullied their way to a 62-44 first-half advantage, exploiting their athletic edge through thunderous flushes and acrobatic finishes near the basket. Brooklyn’s gas tank emptied quickly and Toronto punished slow close-outs by burying five of its six first-half triples in the final three minutes of each frame.
The Nets made futile attempts to stop the bleeding until a light bulb flashed over their heads—dinosaurs don’t need Band-Aids. Rather than limiting the damage being done, they inflicted some of their own. A fiery 44-point fourth-quarter left the Raptors reeling, as if the basketball gods deemed it necessary to highlight the importance of experience in postseason play.
“The Raptors were a quarter from a 3-2 series lead, and suddenly they realized they were on the tightrope and the canyon yawned underneath their feet,” Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur wrote.
The narrative never reached its expected conclusion, though. Toronto—battered and bruised from Brooklyn’s late-game barrage—found a resolve that never before seemed to survive north of the border.
The Raptors survived the Nets’ surge, then fired a kill shot from a gun no one knew it was carrying:
So, what exactly kept Toronto’s playoff pulse pumping? Well, Kyle Lowry happened. Again and again and again.
Brooklyn knotted the contest at 101 with 3:19 remaining, and the bulldog point guard worked his way to the charity stripe for two go-ahead free throws. The Nets tied it at 106 with 1:23 left and Lowry answered with a triple. After Andray Blatche’s layup trimmed the deficit to one, Lowry calmly converted a running hook late in the shot clock.
“We need an answer, we call Kyle Lowry,” Raptors forward Chuck Hayes said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Smith. “Kyle will figure it out.”
Of course the NBA’s surprise contender would be guided by the most surprising leader of the postseason. The 28-year-old has always been supremely talented, but top-shelf ability rarely translated to team success.
Well, before this season, it didn’t.
“Lowry used to be a pain in the a** for everyone around him, teammates and coaches included,” NBA.com’s John Schuhmann wrote. “But he’s learned to focus his fire and now, he’s just a pain in the a** for his opponent. Watch him closely on any given night and you’ll wonder if the Raptors could have won 20 games without him.”
DeMar DeRozan, the team’s lone All-Star representative, might be the proverbial straw stirring Toronto’s drink. Amir Johnson would then be the ice cubes, easily forgotten but a crucial component of the concoction. That leaves hulking 21-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas as the drool-worthy flavor and coach Dwane Casey as the masterful mixologist.
As for Lowry, he’s the glass itself. None of these ingredients come together without him first establishing the foundation.
No matter where Toronto finds itself in these 48-minute mini-marathons, Lowry is the guy who is “never going to stop playing,” Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd said, via Ian Harrison of The Associated Press.
The Raptors simply follow his lead. History books are rewritten as this group refuses to accept fate in a game the numbers say it should have never won:
This team isn’t perfect—far from it, in fact.
Lowry (42.3 percent shooting in the regular season) and DeRozan (42.9) are volume contributors. Valanciunas has the tools for greatness but remains on the cusp of goodness (12.8 points, 10.8 rebounds in the postseason). Johnson does a lot of things well, perhaps compensating for the fact he does none of them at an elite level.
Toronto has played with the recklessness of a young team (18.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, second-highest in the playoffs) and may have lost sophomore swingman Terrence Ross to the bright lights (3.6 points on 23.1 percent shooting). It scrapped for a 3-2 series lead but came painfully close to playing an elimination game on Brooklyn’s home floor.
“This game tonight, we’ve gotta learn from it,” Casey said after Wednesday’s win, via ESPN.com’s James Herbert. “There’s so many learning experiences from tonight’s game: handling the lead, withstanding the prosperity. Embracing pressure, how about that one? We gotta do that from top to bottom.”
The Raptors have thrown themselves into the lion’s den, but they’re still standing. It’s been that way all season.
“We were just saying [in the dressing room], if we’re down 20, we’ll come back,” Hayes said, via Eric Koreen of the National Post. “If we’re up 20, they’ll find a way to come back. I can’t remember the last comfortable win we’ve had.”
Style points, of course, leave no imprint on the playoff picture. Elbow grease, sweat equity, floor burns—all three key components of Casey’s game plan—are what surface in the NBA’s second season.
Toronto has played like it wants this more than Brooklyn. The Raptors have tracked down a higher percentage of their misses (28.6 to 20.5), converted more second-chance points (11.6 to 10.0) and even found more fast-break points (9.4 to 8.8), despite averaging nearly five more turnovers a night (16.8 to 12.4), via NBA.com.
Plus, Miami just had trouble containing a high-motor point guard (Charlotte Bobcats‘ Kemba Walker, 19.5 points on 47.3 percent shooting in the opening round). It’s also vulnerable on the interior, a fact Valanciunas took advantage of in four regular-season meetings (13.3 points on 68.8 percent shooting).
Nothing short of a best-case scenario for Toronto (or a worst-case one for Miami) would suffice in the second round. It’s important to remember, though: A little ugliness on the Raptors’ end doesn’t signify a falling sky.
They’ve never been down this road before, so a few wrong turns are to be expected. This team is tough enough to survive some stumbles.
The Raptors are in for the fight of their lives, but they’ve had their gloves up all season. They want to be trading these type of punches. They’re discovering just how much knockout power they really pack.