The fact they will open at home regardless has to be of some solace. “It does, because we’re a young team and whoever we play . . . is going to be more of an experienced team, so being at home will help,” said Casey. “But it’s not the answer, it’s not the cure-all, it’s not going to win the game for you. We still have to go out and compete and do the things we have to do to win.” What matters, however, is how the Raptors are playing far more than who they will face. They were good for stretches against the Knicks on Friday but not for long enough and, uncharacteristically, they faded in the fourth quarter.
Toronto’s defeat, at the hands of a desperate Knicks teams fighting for their playoff lives, exposed a series of lingering concerns for Dwane Casey and his club. Meanwhile, with Chicago coming back from an 18-point deficit to knock off the Pistons, the Raptors fell out of the Eastern Conference’s third seed. Do they care who they’ll face in the opening round of the postseason, beginning next weekend, on Apr. 19 or 20? “No, not at all,” Lowry stated. “We’ve proved we can play with anybody in this league,” DeRozan added. “We understand that, so it really doesn’t matter to us.” He was not alone. The consensus in the room was just that, no, they’re not stressing over their first-round opponent, or so they say. In the grand scheme of things it could be the difference between the team’s second ever series victory or an early vacation, a reality they all seem to grasp, given their expressions of discontent upon learning that Chicago had won.
Melo’s only consistent sidekick, save for spurts of help from his guards, was Amar’e Stoudemire, who had one of his finest games in by far his longest spin of the season. Amar’e waited on the weak side, caught passes out of good ball movement, and finished. Amar’e backed his man down, gained separation with a spin, and finished. Amar’e got touches in transition and out of the pick-and-roll and finished. The Raptors have decent interior defenders, and Amar’e jammed jams on all of them. Melo and the guards helped Amar’e out, too, by not just force-feeding him the ball but actually working around fronts and offering him bail-outs when help came. And he responded well, staying active off the ball and passing out a couple times when he was crowded. The begoggled one just had an especially lovely bounce for all his 40 minutes, and it even carried over to a weirdly productive stretch on the glass (11 boards in the first, 0 in the second half) and some spots of defense. Like maybe one or two defenses. A lot of fun to watch.
Not quite how fans imagined things going down. Unfortunately, the Raptors put on a pretty sad display of basketball this evening and fans were left with no choice but to wait and see what the outcome of the Nets/Hawks game was. Luckily, the Hawks prevailed and Toronto nabs only its second division title in franchise history. However overshadowing the division title clinching was tonight’s game, another showcase of some suddenly porous Raptors’ defense. The New York Knicks shot 56 per cent in the first quarter and jumped out to a decent lead, and turned up the juice again to start the third quarter, dropping 33 points on Toronto and never really looking back.
DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, the longest-serving Raptors, adamantly stated at the beginning of October that they were fed up with all of the losing and the playoffs weren’t just a goal, but rather a certainty. In a quiet 1-on-1 moment, Johnson managed a wide smile and admitted it did indeed feel quite sweet to finally be division champs after so many years of being fodder for other, better teams. While DeRozan said “it sucks” to lose, he also at least said it was a proud moment. “It sucks that we lost the game, especially with us trying to hold the third spot, but it feels great to win the division. I don’t think anybody would have picked us to win it. That’s definitely a great accomplishment,” DeRozan said. Kyle Lowry echoed those thoughts. “It’s sweet and sour. It’s very sweet that we won the division but it sucks that we didn’t win it by a win. But we’ll take the division champs any day.”
“I’m more concerned about getting better,’’ head coach Dwane Casey said when apprised of his team capturing the division. “It’s great for the fans, believe me. I’m excited for the fans, but I’m concerned about 30% (shooting) inside the three-point line (Toronto’s percentage against the Knicks). “This franchise has had a lot of ups and downs. It’s funny how the expectations change. We go from developing and now all at once we lose to Carmelo Anthony and a team like this. Believe me, we still have growing to do. “We just want to be ready to go into the playoffs with some momentum and not let a game like (Friday night define the unit). I tip my hat (to the Knicks). Sometimes someone just kicks your butt.”
In a vacuum, this was not a good day for the Raptors. The Bulls came back to beat Detroit, passing the Raptors for third place in the conference. If those seeds hold — and that is far from certain — the Raptors will play the Nets in the first round as opposed to the less experienced Wizards or Bobcats. It could also potentially put them on the same side of the bracket as the Heat as opposed to the struggling Pacers. Those are first world problems compared to where the Raptors started the year, but they represent the new reality. Both Lowry and DeMar DeRozan expressed a complete apathy about the identity of their first-round opponent. “We’re still anxious,” DeRozan said. “We still want more. We’re not satisfied with nothing [yet]. We understand we have much more basketball to play and a long road to go and we want to take advantage of it. Not just get there and say we got there, where people doubted us. We definitely feel like we can go in and make some noise.”