The Toronto Raptors (41-31) clinched their first trip to the postseason in six years on Friday night against the Boston Celtics - and they did so in a manner befitting their dramatic, hustle-oriented season.
There was the wild momentum swings, as the Raps trailed by seven early, rallied to eventually take as much as a 14-point lead and then brought things down to the wire in a nail-biter finish. There was the late rally, as Boston took a four-point lead in the final minutes before Toronto responded with a 6-0 run. There was the key, defining hustle play, with Amir Johnson hurling himself through the paint to put back a Kyle Lowry miss with 7.1 seconds on the clock for what would hold up as the game winner. Finally, there was the final defensive stand, with the Celtics being unable to manage anything more than a contested Jared Sullinger prayer before the buzzer sounded.
The end result was a 105-103 win, some "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang played over the loud speakers and the realization of a goal that seemed so unlikely just a few months ago.
The Final Three Minutes
I'm not sure what changed between the first nine minutes of Friday night's fourth quarter and the final three, but it's ultimately the end result that matters and the Raps ensured that it would be a positive result with an emphatic late stand. After getting outscored 28-12 thanks to an unstoppable stretch from former Raptor Jerryd Bayless (more later), Toronto dug in their heels and took firm control to finish things off. After a scrappy-but-fruitless drive that saw them earn two second-chance opportunities before the shot clock expired, they got some easy points off of a Lowry lay-up, a pair of Greivis Vasquez free throws, a DeMar DeRozan jumper and the aforementioned Johnson put back. On defence, they forced two bad shots, blocked another and forced a turnover down the stretch.
The subject of not one but two glowing SI.com profiles in recent weeks, DeRozan took over in the second half, scoring 24 of his game-high 30 points after halftime (he had 12 in each of the third and fourth quarters. He also demonstrated some trademark toughness after getting knocked down on a big Jeff Green block of his fast break lay-up attempt, only to get helped up and come back with a key jumper in the final minute.
The Turnover Battle
Statistically, there was little that separated the two clubs on Friday night. Boston held a slight edge in shooting percentage (52.6% to 46.5%), Toronto held a slight edge on the glass (36 to 34) and the Raps eked out a 23-22 advantage in the assist department. The only category that held any discernible distinction was the turnovers, where the Celts committed 16 (including three each by Green, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley) to just 10 by the home side. Toronto was also able to manage 21 points off of those Celtic turnovers, compared to just 14 points off turnovers for the visitors.
Bayless Off the Dribble
If Bayless put the ball on the floor in the fourth quarter of last night's game, something bad was likely about to happen for the Raptors. Starting with a running lay-up that became a three-point play, the combo guard used an assortment of phenomenal ball handling, smooth shooting and aggressive cuts to flummox the Raptor defence and manage 14 points in the final 12 minutes.
I won't go as far as to say I was glad to have the Celtics rally back and put the game into real question, but the thrilling nature of the win definitely created a more festive post-game atmosphere than were the club to clinch by running down the clock in an already-determined game with the crowd heading to the exits early. Or, you know, had they lost and then had to wait for the Knicks' loss in Phoenix to make their playoff spot official.
It's hard to think of a more ideal situation for Boston to be in this season than where they currently find themselves. At 23-49, the club is firmly lottery-bound and will probably wind up somewhere in the 4-8 range in this summer's draft (Julius Randle/Dante Exum/Noah Vonleh/Marcus Smart territory). At the same time, they haven't quit on first-year head coach Brad Stevens and can use game's like Friday as both fuel and encouragement moving forward. It doesn't hurt that the Celts also boast six first-rounders over the next three drafts, plus some additional draft perks even beyond that.
Now that the playoff spot is locked up, the battle for the division comes to the forefront. The Raps are in Orlando on Sunday night (6:00pm, SN1) before paying the Heat a visit on Monday, while Brooklyn hosts the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Prediction: Raps 95, Magic 92 (39-15 this season)