In the moments before the Toronto Raptors took the court for Game 4 in Brooklyn, they huddled in the locker-room and watched footage of their fans gathered back home in Maple Leaf Square.
The Raptors went on to win Game 4 and even up the series and say they’ve drawn inspiration from the swell of support they’re receiving in their home city.
“I told the team, the fans are doing their part, we’ve got to do our part as a team, as a group of guys to lead the fight on the court, because the fans are behind us 100 per cent and they’re loud and they’re very proud. And they should be,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
The Raptors expect a repeat of Sunday, when a capacity crowd of 2,500 red-clad fans jammed Maple Leaf Square to watch the game on the giant screen outside the Air Canada Centre. Thousands more packed the roads leading up to the ACC in a raucous outdoor celebration similar to the city’s playoff party during the Maple Leafs’ brief run last year.
“Oh man, it’s unbelievable, our fan base,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. “It makes you want to just be a part of it. Things that we’re doing right now and the way the fan base is going out there, we want to go out there and play hard and give them a reason to keep coming back and packing Maple Leaf Square and packing the ACC.
“We need our fans, we love our fans… We can’t wait to see (Wednesday) night, the vibe and the energy we’re going to get.”
— Landry Fields (@landryfields) April 28, 2014
The series has been a spirited battle even before the first ball was tossed up, thanks to general manager Masai Ujiri’s now-famous F-bomb.
It’s been a fierce fight on the court. Casey said Kyle Lowry looked like he’d been through a 15-round bout after Game 4, and the coach expects both teams to come out swinging in Game 5 on Wednesday.
“It’s not going to be all smiles and bubble gum and fruitcakes… It’s going to be a street fight,” Casey said. “That’s the way we’ve got to come out, with that mentality.”
The Raptors, said Lowry, were caught on their heels Game 1 of the series. The less-experienced Raptors — three of the team’s starters had never made a playoff appearance — weren’t prepared for how physical post-season action would be. They lost that game.
They put up a fight in Sunday’s Game 4 victory in Brooklyn, holding the Nets to just three baskets in a scrappy fourth quarter. But they were forced to battle back from a lackadaisical third quarter, a bad habit the Raptors haven’t been able to shake all season long.
“We’ve got to compete like that for 40-plus (minutes),” Casey said. “The third quarter has been our nemesis… that’s what we have to remedy, coming out of the locker-room at halftime with that desperate disposition.”
Despite being the No. 3 seed, the Raptors were considered underdogs in this series based on playoff experience. DeMar DeRozan said they’ve played with a chip on their collective shoulder with that underdog mentality all season, so this is nothing new.
“We understood coming into this series that people still counted us out, people still doubted us, people said: Brooklyn’s experience, this, that and the third… whatever you want to hear,” said DeRozan, who struggled through playoff jitters in Game 1 but has shone for Toronto in the three games since.
“We’ve been counted out so long, we’ve got the underdog mentality. I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”
Playoff experience was a major theme when this best-of-seven series began. Future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce alone — with 136 playoff appearances — had played in almost as many post-season games as the entire Raptors roster combined.
None of Toronto’s starters — Lowry, DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas — had ever started in a playoff game. DeRozan, Ross and Valanciunas had never played in the post-season, period.
The Raptors say that four games in, experience doesn’t mean much anymore.
“It’s just who wants it more from here on out. That’s what it boils down to now,” DeRozan said.
Added Casey: “I don’t think we’re as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as we were in Game 1.”
Ross remains the one Raptor struggling with the playing on the big stage of the post-season. The athletic sophomore, who poured in 51 points in a game earlier this season, scored zero in Game 4.
Casey and the players remain fiercely supportive of the 21-year-old.
“I’m not going to do anything to crush that young man’s confidence or what he’s brought to the table thus far,” said Casey, pointing out that Ross has done some good things on the defensive end.
“And it’s not about Terrence Ross, it’s about our entire team,” the coach added. “The spotlight should not be on him in any way whatsoever. The reason why we win or lose is not because of what Terrence Ross did or didn’t do.”