In the final dramatic couple of minutes Sunday night, offensively-gifted DeMar DeRozan turned into a defensive superstar, sent sprawling to the floor when he took two charges.
Not to be outdone, hobbling six-foot point guard Kyle Lowry dropped a lovely sky hook over 6-11 giant and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett.
The final minutes of the Toronto Raptors’ 87-79 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday could define this young team and their season — fighting to the end, finding a way to win.
“That’s just us, man,” DeRozan said. “We’re resilient. We’re not going to give up until the game’s over, we’re going to fight it through … We did it on the defensive end to win this game.”
DeRozan scored 24 points and Lowry added 22 to lift the beaten-up Raptors to their first playoff victory on the road since Game 1 against Philadelphia way back in 2001. After the final whistle, a smiling coach Dwane Casey said it was the most proud he’s ever been of his team.
“(But) we’re on a mission, it’s a marathon,” the coach added. “We can’t get too excited about a win, can’t get too down about a loss. That’s what the playoffs are about.”
Amir Johnson, playing on the wonky ankle that has plagued him all season, finished with 17 points. Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez finished with nine points apiece off the bench, and Patterson grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
About 2,000 fans filled Maple Leaf Square, which has been renamed Jurassic Park during the playoff series, to cheer on their Raptors. The crowd erupted as the clock counted down to the final seconds of the game.
The best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series heads to Toronto tied at two wins apiece. Game 5 is Wednesday at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, while Game 6 will be back at Barclays Center on Friday.
The Raptors led by as much as 17 points — the biggest lead by either team in this series — in the first half, but struggled through the second and third quarters, running into foul trouble and failing to hit shots. Still, the nailbiter went into the fourth tied at 67-67.
From there, the Raptors dug in with one of their best defensive efforts of the season, holding the Nets to just three baskets in the final 12 minutes. And when the final whistle blew, the Raptors fans in attendance at Barclays Center stood and applauded the Toronto players off the floor.
“I think we’re just encouraged,” Lowry said. “We’re going home 2-2. We’re encouraged by that. We got a split, now it’s a three-game series, now we’ve got to take care of home. Our confidence is high, we’re excited.”
Lowry, who came away from Friday’s game with a bad right knee and a busted lip, was noticeably limping at times.
“I’m OK,” Lowry said. “It’s something that’s controllable, we can do what we’ve got to do to get through the playoffs, it’s nothing where I need surgery. It’s definitely a pain, but I’m not going to worry about it, I’m not going to complain about it, I’m going to go out there and do my job.”
Lowry kept his composure despite playing the entire second half with five fouls.
“He’s dealing with a lot right now, and he came through with flying colours,” Casey said. “Fought through foul trouble, a little bit of adversity throughout the game and still came through.”
Lowry’s teammates heaped praise on their tough-as-nails point guard in the post-game dressing room.
“I am not surprised at all that Kyle is limping around,” Chuck Hayes said. “Man, he was limping all four quarters. He’s a warrior. He’s everything to this team. The guy gives it his all. We just feed off him.”
Lowry and DeRozan — the team’s leaders through this remarkable season — sat side by side at the podium after the game, addressing the media. They talked about the chemistry in this young team.
“We’re a pretty close-knit team, we understand the situation that we’re in, it’s a stepping stone for us,” Lowry said. “We’re getting our feet wet. This man (DeRozan) is becoming a superstar in front of everybody’s eyes. He’s doing it on the defensive end, the offensive end.”
They both chuckled when Lowry was asked about his late-game hook shot over Garnett that gave Toronto a six-point lead.
“I think that was the first time (I’ve done that) in a game,” Lowry said. “That’s something I work on in the summertime. Kevin Garnett is 6-11, he’s a guy who can block shots, and I thought that was a shot I can go to. I took the shot to be aggressive. It looked good. It felt good.”
There was more laughter when DeRozan was asked if the two charges he took down the stretch marked a career high.
“Nah. I don’t think so. I hope it’s not,” DeRozan said. “With Kyle (being injured), I knew I had to pick up the offence early, so I did that, just come out aggressive and I knew they were going to change up and start trying to get the ball out of my hands… I knew I could do some things on the defensive end and that’s what I did.”
Paul Pierce led the Nets with 22 points, while Mirza Teletovic had 12. Garnett and Deron Williams finished with 10 points apiece.
“They’re a competitive group,” Pierce said on the Raptors’ play down the stretch. “We’ve seen that all season long, how well they play, getting 48 wins, how well they play in the fourth quarter, so many comeback wins. We understand that this is a group that’s not going to back down, that’s not going to give up. They earn a lot of respect around the league.”
The Nets won Games 1 and 3, while the Raptors took Game 2 in what’s been an incredibly even matchup all season between these two teams. Prior to Sunday, Toronto had outscored the Nets 678-677 in their seven meetings.
The Raptors had struggled with turnovers all series, but cleaned up their act Sunday, giving up the ball just 12 times.
The one negative on the night was Terrence Ross, who was M.I.A. for a fourth straight game. Couple with his struggles, Landry Fields being sidelined with a bad back, and the number of Raptors in early foul trouble, Casey went deep into his bench, utilizing John Salmons, Chuck Hayes and Steve Novak for stretches of the third and fourth quarters.
Ross, who dropped 51 points in a game earlier this season, has struggled in his playoff debut, and had another rough night Sunday, finishing with zero points in 16 minutes.
Fields, who got dumped on his back during Friday’s game, didn’t dress.
While the Raptors braced a hostile crowd at Barclays Center — especially after GM Masai Ujiri’s now famous F-bomb about Brooklyn — it never really materialized. The crowds on either Friday or Sunday didn’t pack the auditory punch of the Air Canada Centre. Fans waved white towels, and there was the odd chant of “Ref you suck!” A group of Nets fans chanted “Raptors suck!” before the singing of O Canada.
There were large pockets of red-clad Raptors fans in attendance, and their cheers for Raptors’ baskets down the stretch almost negated Brooklyn’s homecourt advantage.
Rihanna sat courtside, along with Michael K. Williams and Felicia (Snoop) Pearson — Omar and Snoop from “The Wire.” Williams did the Nets’ introductions. Russian boxer Ruslan Provodnikov, the current world light welterweight champion, was also in attendance.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto on Sunday, thousands of fans jammed Maple Leaf Square to watch the game on the giant screen outside Air Canada Centre. They chanted “We the North!” Two fans participated in a tug-of-war with a Nets T-shirt on stage, eventually ripping it.
Amir Johnson led the way with 11 points as the Raptors sprinted out to an 11-point lead just three minutes after tipoff. They continued to build their advantage, and seven straight points by Johnson put Toronto up by 15. They led 35-22 at the end of the first.
The Raptors stretched their advantage to 17 points with 5:40 left in the first half. But the Nets went on a 14-2 run to pull within five points. The Raptors headed to the locker-room with a 51-44 lead at halftime.
Toronto went a horrible 1-for-16 to open the third quarter, but managed to remain within five points of the Nets, and the game went into the fourth all tied up.