The Toronto Raptors' 2013-14 season ended on Sunday, less with a whimper and more with a bang better suited for what was an exciting, successful campaign from a likable group that really won the city over.
Down by double digits against a stingy Brooklyn Nets' squad with five minutes to go, the Raps battled back to build to yet another thrilling finish. Trailing by one with eight seconds left, Terrence Ross deflected Brooklyn's inbounds pass attempt and launched it off of Paul Pierce and out of bounds, giving the Raps a go-ahead opportunity in the dying seconds. Kyle Lowry, the heart of everything the team did this year, drove the lane, lost the ball, recovered it and then had a desperation runner blocked by Pierce to take the air out of an electric ACC crowd and to send the Nets into the second round with a 104-103 win.
For as disappointing a result as it was for a crowd that had been so jubilant just moments earlier, there were a number of silver linings to be found. Lowry and Amir Johnson both left it all on the floor (as lame a clichee as that is), with Lowry overcoming a rough shooting night with a do-it-all fourth quarter and Johnson turning in a monster 20-10 effort before fouling out.
Now, it is the Nets who are deservedly moving onto the second round after being the better team in the big moments and claiming gutsy Game 1 and Game 7 wins in (very) hostile territory. Pierce once again showed up with the game on the line, stuffing Lowry's attempted buzzer beater. Meanwhile, Joe Johnson, who the Raps failed to contain all series long, would have been the runaway favourite for series MVP if such a thing existed. Not sure if they have anything left in the tank for Round 2, for which the Miami Heat have the Raps to thank.
If the passion of Raptor fans was a league secret prior to this series, it isn't anymore. ABC's Mike Tirico did a live hit before the game at the 10,000-strong Maple Leaf Square viewing area that affectionately came to be known as "Jurrasic Park". Inside the arena, a crowd of 20,000 clad in red and white t-shirts served up the loudest sound I've ever heard in the arena, sharing in a deafening "Let's Go Raptors" chant leading into tip-off and psyching out a visibly frazzled Deron Williams during a pair of late free throw attempts. The series of quotes showcased on the in-arena scoreboard, featuring the likes of Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley praising the Toronto crowds made it clear: this team's massive fan base got noticed over the past few weeks. That Pierce and co. felt the need to react to the ACC faithful in the aftermath of Sunday's win shows that the fans got under Brooklyn's skin.
A Powerful Moment
The aftermath of Sunday's game wasn't without some ugly - Toronto fans in the southwest corner demonstrated their displeasure with the officiating by pelting Joey Crawford and co. with t-shirts, cups and other projectiles. But the moments after the final buzzer were best characterized by the scene near center court, where Lowry lay flat on his back and near tears while DeMar DeRozan got down and locked him in a hearty embrace, all the while the capacity crowd honoured the club with a standing ovation.
Let me be clear - I don't buy into any of the widely circulated (and baseless) conspiracy theories about the league commanding their refs to slant calls in favour of certain teams, nor do I believe that they harbor any sense of an anti-Toronto bias amongst officials. The only guy who was fined for openly criticizing the officiating this series was Nets head coach Jason Kidd. That being said, I do feel that Crawford's crew did a jarringly poor job on Sunday, making several calls along the lines of what the Star's Bruce Arthur at one point called, "comically blown". It wasn't all the bad calls that went against Toronto, but it sure felt like the lion's share. The officiating didn't wind up deciding the game and shouldn't take any shine off of Brooklyn's victory, but there is something inherently wrong when your lead Game 7 ref is booed before the game on account of a pre-established reputation.
Casey's Game Management
Don't get me wrong - Dwane Casey has masterfully handled his club this season, developing a strong relationship with Lowry and getting the most out of a roster that wasn't built to win now. But during a series in which he made his share of mistakes, Game 7 particularly featured some head-scratching decisions. Johnson's foul woes, for instance can be partially blamed on the officiating and on Johnson, himself, but Casey has to claim some responsibility for leaving him in the game after picking up his fourth foul just minutes into the third quarter (he would pick up his fifth with over nine minutes left in the third frame). Likewise, Lowry was nearly rendered irrelevant, remaining in the game despite registering his third foul less than halfway through the second quarter. While some Raptors were over-used, others (namely, Landry Fields) were under-utilized. Fields saw the floor for all of 14 seconds in Game 7, his value essentially existing in the six fouls he had to dole out. Yet, he had already established himself as the team's most effective defender on a difference-making Joe Johnson.
Some day soon, I hope we can get past this inherent inferiority complex that allows us to get excited by the acknowledgments of any NBA observer south of the border. We're not there yet, mind you, and so there is still excitement to be had in knowing that Jay-Z opted to break a 10-month silence on Twitter to laud the Raps.
The Nets still have the rest of this postseason to worry about, but the Raptors have to like how they shape up when comparing the long-term outlook of the two franchises. Brooklyn doesn't have complete control of their first round draft pick again until 2019 and its long-term fortunes are tied to the health of Brook Lopez. Livingston is a nice piece and Mason Plumlee may be a productive NBA big, but Pierce and Kevin Garnett are clearly in the twilight of their careers and its hard to see where their replacements will come from. Of course, the Nets aren't thinking about that for the time being and will continue to not think about it for as long as they remain in championship contention.
One piece of the off-season puzzle is in place, while another may be in the works. But it will be interesting to see what Masai Ujiri has up his sleeve for his first full off-season in charge, an off-season that comes with his club positioned far differently than many would have believed heading into the season. I'll be checking back in periodically through the summer.