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To say last night was an exciting night for fans of Eastern Conference basketball (yes, we are out here!) would be an understatement, to say the least. Heading into game time, as many as five playoff seeding spots were still in doubt. The Raptors, for their credit, just needed one more victory to lock into the third slot – in a game against their underachieving division rival New York Knicks sans their best player and only All-Star. Still, though, you’d hope the Knicks would get up for this one, as much as the Raptors fan in you wanted to see them coast to the finish line (for the lack of potential injuries to key players, if nothing else).

The first half, though, provided little of that. Admittedly, I missed the first 6 minutes of the game, due to a tragic Sportsnet TV guide mixup where the Raptors game was actually a Mariners game, and the Blue Jays game was the Raptors game (if you try this come playoff time, Rogers, I swear to Jonas you’re in trouble). The Raptors shot over 60 per cent in the first quarter, bolstered by Kyle Lowry, who was absolutely unconscious from everywhere (finishing the quarter with an astounding 17 against mostly Knicks backups). There was a point in the quarter where the Raptors were shooting 9 of 13, and the Knicks were 5 of 20, and yet the Knicks managed to keep the game within striking distance due to an 8-3 discrepancy at the free throw line.

The second quarter began with Casey trotting out a lineup of Patterson, Hansbrough, de Colo, Vasquez, and the seldom used Dwight Buycks, and when they started heating up, it seemed like the rout was on. Vasquez was particularly impressive, picking apart the Knicks “defense” with some great drive-and-dishes and hitting open 3 pointers. One pass in particular to a streaking Nando de Colo, who also thrived in the small-ball drive and kick lineup, stands out.

Despite the history fan in me wanting Lowry to stay in the game and go for 60, Casey smartly held him out until late in the frame (which is both a good explanation of why I don’t work in the NBA and why my “Twitch coaches an NBA team” idea is dead in the water). JR Smith came back in and did JR Smith things, taking advantage of the Raptors’ inevitable cold streak, but the half ended with the Raptors up 13 and, seemingly, coasting to the finish line.

The third quarter, though, quickly brought that thought to a screeching halt. After a neat video at the half that showed former Raptors talking about what a special place the ACC can be at playoff time (Mugsy!), the Raps, despite their best efforts, returned to the court a little too satisfied with the game thus far, and the Knicks ripped off a 14-2 run to start the quarter that brought the score back within 1.

This also happened to be the time where the Bulls finally succumbed to the Bobcats in overtime, officially clinching the 3rd seed for the Raptors and leading to thousands of Raptor fans pleading for Casey and crew to get the starters the hell out of there. He did appease us somewhat, taking out Jonas, Amir, and Ross during the next timeout but leaving DeMar and Lowry in.

Side note: can someone please explain to me why the Knicks signed Lamar Odom for “the remainder of the season?” Just to lock him up before all zero of his suitors come after him in free agency? Are they expecting a godfather offer from an Italian team? I thought Phil Jackson was the person who was supposed to stop all this front-office madness? I don’t understand.

Back to the game, where the Raptors are clung to a slim lead through the third quarter. Inexplicably, it took Casey an additional 10 real-time (6 in-game) minutes after news broke to get Lowry, the final starter, out of the game – minutes which included no fewer than three Dwyane Wade-esque reckless drives to the hoop. God, Lowry/Casey. Give me a heart attack, why don’cha. The third quarter ended with the Raptor bench tied with the Knicks in what had essentially become a meaningless game, standings-wise. From this writer’s point of view, an injury-less fourth quarter was a success, no matter the outcome.

Side note number 2: I’ve never cheered for a team that another team was actively, obviously tanking to secure a playoff matchup with before. And I’ve got to admit, it makes me mad, as much as it makes sense for that team objectively. Seriously, Brooklyn? Not playing any of your starters? Playing a guy named “Jorge Gutierrez” 33 minutes, and Jason Collins 39? Getting crushed by CLEVELAND, of all teams? F*ck the Nets. F*ck the stupid Brooklyn Knight. Drake > Jay Z. Leiweke > Prokhorov, and Rookie Vince > New Jersey sell-out Vince. Bring it on. In the immortal, voice-crackey words of Brock Lesnar, I will see you, ON SUNDAY (Saturday, but the point stands).

On another quick tangent, good on Casey and the Raptors for playing tough until their seeding was guaranteed, as much as the threat of injuries loomed. People are coming to the arena to see a product, and it’s only right that teams keep the tanking to a minimum.

That all being said, thankfully, the fourth quarter began with the entire bench in the game, and it stayed that way (my favourite lineup was a super-small Buycks/de Colo/Vasquez/Novak/Hansbrough unit). There really wasn’t much to talk about even though the score remained close, seeing as neither team really seemed to care too much about the outcome – Steve Novak airballing a 3 from the centre of the court was the most memorable moment until crunch-time.

With 2 minutes to go, though, the game was tied at 90, thanks to some JR Smith heroics and some great efforts by a few Raptors, in particular, Vasquez, Hansbrough, and de Colo, who had a great 3-and-charge sequence late in the game. The Knicks took a 4 point lead with 20 seconds to go on a couple JR Smith jumpers (and the Raptors offence running through Dwight Buycks and a still-airballing Steve Novak), but Casey resisted the temptation to put his starters back on the floor as the team’s 49th win slipped away.

Hansbrough rewarded him with a really tough hoop that ended up being an and-one (missing the free throw), but was bailed out by a tough offensive rebound by Steve Novak, of all people (seriously, did he switch bodies with someone tonight?). A Buycks miss and a Knicks knock-out, and the Raptors had the ball down two with 6 seconds left in what had immediately become an immensely entertaining final few seconds.

Then the Chuckster threw it away. Oh well.

But then JR Smith missed the second free throw!

And then Steve Novak dribbled it off his foot. Oh well.

But then the refs reversed the call!

And then Nando de Colo didn’t get a shot off. Oh well.

Regardless of the hilarious final few seconds, the final score for the night was 95-92 Knicks. It’s a totally acceptable outcome for a team that played the first half like the game meant something, and the second half like it didn’t – which is exactly what they should have done.

On a bigger note, though, I’m seriously going to miss this season. As fans (particularly Toronto sports fans), we spend our lives watching sports, often through the muck and the mire, for that short moment of payoff when your team of also-rans somehow finally finds a way to break through. Five years from now, when we’re all upset about the Raptors finishing sixth in the conference, remember this season – a likeable team and coach that loved their city, a whip-smart executive making intelligent moves throughout the offseason and regular season, and, perhaps most importantly, a core of home-bred (sans Lowry) guys that we’ve cheered for and hoped the best for for years.

I’m excited for the entire team and can’t wait for the playoffs, but I’m most excited for Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan, who sat on the roller coaster with us for years while it slowly, agonizingly rolled up the track. We’ve finally hit the peak, and the fun part – where the coaster starts screaming down and they take the embarrassing photo – that’s now. What a season it was.

But let’s not lose sight of the big picture here, too. What a season it was – with it was being the key words. It’s over. The journey, the waiting, all of it.

Saturday? That’s not a continuation. It’s another beginning – one this team earned, one they deserve, and one they will hopefully make the most of. You’d better be ready, Brooklyn. Because this team, these fans, this country has been waiting five long years for this moment. And we’ll damn sure be ready to welcome you to the ACC.

Playoff basketball, baby. Nothing like it.
Let’s go Raps. Nets, I hope your passports are up to date. We’ll be waiting for you.

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