The Raptors fell, but they stood for something

Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's shot from the lane on the final play of the game, and the Nets held off the Toronto Raptors 104-103 in Game 7 on Sunday to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

When Patrick Patterson saw Kyle Lowry barreling down the lane with the volume at the Air Canada Centre turned up a few notches louder than a train in a tunnel, he was at peace.

The clock was clicking down – five, four, three … and the Raptors gift basket of a basketball season with it as they trailed the Brooklyn Nets by one in the first-ever Game 7 played in Toronto – but Patterson had faith.

Kyle Lowry with the ball, down one, seconds to play, season on the line, would you take that?

“Every day,” Patterson said. “Every day.”

There are all kinds of things that can be taken away from the Raptors season, which ended the way no one could have predicted with a 104-103 loss to the Nets in Game 7 of the first round (“You would have thought I was medicated,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey when asked if he thought the Raptors had this season in them back in training camp).

But one thing above all is that they were a true team: better than the sum of their parts, populated by good citizen role players deep on the bench and down-to-earth emerging stars at the top in the form of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry.

So when Patterson saw Lowry in trouble as he turned to corner and headed for the rim – the Nets Kevin Garnett had knocked the ball loose momentarily — his instinct was to come to his aid. In the end it was that instinct that may have cost the Raptors the game, and the series. But it was the same instinct that got them this far in the first place: “We’re all we got,” Patterson said of the Raptors outlook this season. “We’re all we have.”

Lowry was able to regain control in the paint, which was roughly as crowded as Union Station at rush hour, but he ended up bumping into Patterson, slowing his momentum to the basket. Going to the ball also allowed the Nets Paul Pierce free to come over and block Lowry’s shot.

The shot to save the Raptors season never made it to the rim.

Patterson’s urge to help his teammate hurt the team.

“I’ve been thinking about that the whole time,” said Patterson in the hallway outside the Raptors dressing room, his parents looking on. The all-purpose power-forward came to Toronto as part of the season-altering Rudy Gay trade on Dec. 8 and has been swept up by what he stepped into.

“Magical, spectacular, unbelievable,” he said of the atmosphere in the ACC and out over the past few weeks.

Now he was killing himself for his small part in it ending, even though he finished a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the line for 16 remarkably efficient points, along with eight rebounds.

“I saw that Kyle lost the ball so I took a step forward,” said Patterson.

“If the ball doesn’t come loose I’m backing Paul down and it’s a better look for Kyle and Paul Pierce doesn’t block his shot.”

He went to help his brother. He did what a family member does.

The end of the game or the season shouldn’t obscure what happened before, which was something people struggled to put their finger on but might have been best captured in the moments before the tip outside in the sunshine and Maple Leaf Square, which was full two hours before the 1 p.m. start and reaching a fever pitch.

Just before Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri took the stage and delighted the crowd saying: “You know what I’m thinking” – a reference to his F-Brooklyn rallying cry on the morning of Game 1, there was ABC play-by-play man Mike Tirico doing a live hit, surrounded by madness, sharing with a U.S. network audience exactly how excited a city and country known for hockey was about their basketball team.

Sure, everyone saw that coming when the Raptors were 6-12 and trading their most recognizable player for four spare parts from the Sacramento Kings.

The Raptors have come a long way and brought a lot of people along for a remarkable ride. The diehards on it from the beginning may have felt the deepest sense of satisfaction but they were a team that was easy to get to know and rally around. What was going on outside echoed the feeling within a team that had toddlers going to daycare together, six first-time fathers and featured 25 kids under seven among the players, coaching staff and executive.

Thrown together by circumstance they became a surrogate family, and played like it.

“I’ve had the best core of teammates I’ve ever had in my life and my career,” said Lowry.

By the time the ball went up for Game 7 the city’s sports wallflower was front-and-centre, taking bows, the beau of a ball that had national interest. Given the Raptors scarcity of time-stands-still moments in their 19-year history, someone would be lucky to have the chance to be part of something bigger than a single win or a single loss.

“This is what you live for man,” DeMar DeRozan was saying before the game. “To play and be in moments like this because they last forever.”

To their credit the Raptors came out and played like they had nothing to lose and nothing to fear. Everyman Amir Johnson, a bellwether for the Raptors all series, scored 12 points and grabbed four rebounds in the first quarter on his way to 20 and 10. Terrence Ross, missing in action most of the series, inexplicably found his legs in the most stressful environment of all, finally driving to the rim after looking lost and scared outside the three-point line most of the series.

The Raptors led 28-26 after the first quarter and the crowd was turning the ACC into something living and breathing and very, very, loud. They were starring right along with their team.

“I want to give a shout out to Toronto, the city,” said Garnett, the aging veteran in his 18th NBA season. “This has got to be one of the best places and best atmospheres I have played in a long time.”

The Nets feature $102-million payroll; with luxury taxes their total wage bill is an NBA record $190-million. They added Garnett and Pierce to help win a title this season, and to manage environments like they encountered in Toronto.

Mikhail Prokhorov, their billionaire Russian owner can take heart: it worked. Slowly as the game unfolded the Nets gained control and tightened their grip. It wasn’t a case of the Raptors failing in the moment as much as it was Nets executing; rocketing the ball around the perimeter for three-pointers they were either able to hit – they made eight, double the four the Raptors did – or recover the long rebounds as the Raptors defence was spread and scrambled. Brooklyn gathered 16 offensive rebounds to 10 by Toronto, a major difference in such a tight game.

By the end of three quarter the Raptors were trailing by eight only thanks to a three-point prayer by DeRozan at the buzzer.

Still, the Raptors trademark all year in their unlikely season has been a fourth quarter resilience – they were the best fourth quarter point differential in the NBA, it’s the heart of their underdog persona.

“No one picked us to make it this far, to win this many games,” said DeRozan, who battled through the flu to score 18 points and count six assists and finished the series as the leading scorer on both teams, with 23.9 per game in his first playoff appearance, validating himself as an all-star along the way.

With four minutes left they were down nine but dug in. They held the Nets to just three points over the next three minutes and along the way the Air Canada Centre kept getting louder and louder. There was a very real possibility when the Nets Deron Williams missed a key free throw with 22.5 seconds left it was because the basket was vibrating.

“You could definitely feel the emotion,” Williams said. “It’s one of the loudest crowds I ever played in front of … they were amazing.”

The final play for Lowry was set up by a spectacular steal by Ross who leaped to intercept Shaun Livingston’s inbounds pass near the Raptors basket with eight seconds to play, a redemptive moment for the second-year player.

And then they had the ball in Lowry’s hands. It didn’t work out and for the second time in franchise history the Raptors lost a Game 7 by a single point.

But it was what happened after the ball didn’t go in that defined the Raptors year.

There was Lowry, lying on the floor in the key, disconsolate, a baggage-laden point guard transformed into a potential franchise player the Raptors will pay dearly to lock-up this summer.

Meanwhile the crowd at the ACC didn’t want to leave, and moments after the horn sounded they kept cheering like it wasn’t over yet: “Let’s go Raptors” – went the chant most who were there will doubtless hear in their sleep.

And DeRozan went and laid down on his friend and told him that it was OK, that “I can sleep at night knowing he took that shot, I can live with that … being there, supporting him.”

Lowry heard the message clearly and it spoke to what the Raptors became over the course of the season and what a nation of basketball fans were drawn to – something a little more than a team.

“It was one of those things,” Lowry said. “A brotherly moment.”

The Raptors lost the game, dropped the series and ended their season, but they proved a point: the best things come from the heart.

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