That was a team win Toronto.
Not just for the Toronto Raptors — who have officially shed whatever playoff cocoon they might have been wrapped in for just a little bit and emerged as a wild and crazy post-season butterfly, heading for unpredictable places — but for Toronto. The City of.
Of this there is no doubt. The Raptors won 115-113 to take a 3-2 lead in their series over the Brooklyn Nets, doubtless inducing a few strokes in the process as they blew a 26-point lead in the second half, but what the hell, it was fun.
Fun to feel the building shake. Fun to watch the unbreakable Kyle Lowry bust out for 36 points. Fun to watch a roller-coaster from up close.
And when the official twitter feed of the team you are playing, the one with the NBA-record $194-million wage bill, tells their 494,000 followers back home in basketball-rich Brooklyn to watch the crowd inside (and outside) the ACC to figure out what a playoff atmosphere looks like, you’re winning.
The atmosphere was nothing short of stunning. The television ratings have been progressively more impressive, social media numbers skyrocketing.
Outside? The crowd in Maple Leaf Square was noticed as they stood in the wet, their fervour keeping them plenty warm.
“I saw them outside,” said Raptors everyman Amir Johnson who rolls into the ACC about two hours before game time, it should be noted. “It’s very important to keep our fans into it, even though it’s raining they’re outside cheering for us, it’s very inspirational and we definitely need that on our home court.”
As for on the floor, well the Raptors were taking care of business.
Okay, there was the matter of the Nets fighting back from that 26-point hole — tying the largest lead Toronto has ever had in a playoff game — midway through the third quarter to tie the game 101-101 with 3:16 to play and then 106-106 with 1:23 left.
Yeah, about that. The Raptors allowed the Nets to shoot 62 percent in the fourth quarter and outscore them 44-24. Not good.
These kinds of things make your coach mad, you Raptors you:
“My emotions?” Dwane Casey said afterwards. “You wouldn’t want to hear it. We just didn’t play smart. They are a veteran team. They are going to take advantage of the mistakes that you make.”
The Raptors made some, but they only made the crowd more delirious, the dopamine rush that much more intense.
The only thing more fun was after the game watching DeMar DeRozan and John Salmons go all wide-eyed learning about the latest Rob Ford revelations.
Sure the Raptors might have fouled a successful Nets three-point shooter THREE times in the fourth, with former Raptor Alan Anderson scoring eight points on two shots – including a four-point play with 10-seconds left to draw the Nets within one — but why dwell on the negative?
That’s Casey’s job, and he’s looking forward to doing it Thursday before the Raptors head to Brooklyn for Game 6.
“We have got to learn from [this] because there are so many learning experiences from tonight’s game,” said Casey. “Having the lead, withstanding prosperity, embracing pressure. How about that one?”
Well, they did okay on that front, or at least Lowry did as he broke the tie with a huge triple and followed up with a pull-up at the rim to help the Raptors squeak through – all in a night’s work for an emerging Toronto playoff legend, who deflected the praise afterwards.
“Sometimes the situation calls for it,” he said of his takeover move. “But usually it’s [DeMar]. Tonight, they way they played him, it gave me an opportunity to get to the basket and get some shots off down the stretch.”
Now Raptors head back to Brooklyn for Game 6 Friday with two chances to win their first playoff series since 2001.
The Nets started the series as the veteran team, bubbling over with playoff experience. The Raptors didn’t have a single starter who had ever started a post-season game.
It was tenser than it had to be. Okay, it was heart-attack bait. But the Raptors weathered it. Their fans helped push them over.
“I have been around this game a long time in every hostile arena – back in Sacramento with the cow bells, Portland where the noise is unbelievable … but it doesn’t come close to our arena,” Casey said.
Can they take it home on Friday? Or back here for Game 7 on Sunday?
For obvious reasons the Raptors don’t want to come out and say it, but privately they were coming around to the possibility that that the Nets aren’t really all that good; or at least as not as good as them.
Brooklyn faces an elimination game at Barclays Centre, which comes off like a Tuesday night in Orlando compared to the ear-splitting mayhem that has become the trademark at the ACC this spring. Individually they might know how to manage it, but as a team? The Nets are proving unproven.
But the seeds for last night were sewn in Brooklyn on the weekend. The Raptors only came home with a split but what happened in the fourth quarters of each game was telling. With the game on the line, it was the Nets who spit the bit.
The Raptors shot 51 percent from the floor in the fourth on the road in Game 3 and Game 4 combined; the Nets just 27 percent.
Part of the reason is the Nets may be old, but as a team they are brand new. The starting lineup they rolled out for Game 5 – Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams boasts 66 seasons of collective NBA experience; literally thousands and thousands of games.
But as a unit? They started together for just 13 times heading into the playoffs. “We’re still growing up, we’ve been growing up all season,” Nets veteran reserve Andrei Kirilenko. “… It’ s a process.”
The Raptors could feel that in Game 3 and 4 as the Nets were struggling with their billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov watching. Now they go back for Game 6 with their $200-million season on the line.
“For them they have that pressure,” said Johnson. “They built that team to win a championship this year. We’re on the rise so I feel like they feel the pressure.”
Wednesday night whatever was holding the Raptors back broke like a dam in a flood. Lowry, the Raptors touchstone, simply annihilated his counterpart, Deron Williams, who could only muster 13 points and nine assist in the face of the onslaught.
Jonas Valanciunas and Johnson combined to make Garnett look ancient as they totaled 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting.
The Raptors got the usual from DeMar DeRozan, who came in to Game 5 having scored a franchise record 98 points in his first four playoff games and added 23 points on 12 shots in Game 5, including icing the game at the line with perfect free-throw shooting down the stretch.
Meanwhile Brooklyn looked like they were the ones coming undone in post-season heat.
Andray Blatche proved he wasn’t the sharpest knife when he fouled Chuck Hayes – the least dangerous offensive player in the series – away from the ball in the first quarter. Joe Johnson picked up his third foul of the first half on a DeRozan jumpshot; Livingston picked up a technical foul needlessly swiping at Valanciunas after the whistle.
When the game was on the line the Nets opted to keep Pierce and Garnett on the bench; so much for experience.
The Raptors may not have more individual playoff exposure, but facing a must-win on their home court they looked the more ready team, their shaky finish aside.
But they found their game and the crowd, it never wavered. And the city? The city is a post-season force to be reckoned with.
F-Brooklyn? How about Toronto? Damn.