When the game ended, it was the elder Lowry who was holding his head. He had the game in his hands with 6.2 seconds remaining. He ran through madness just to get the ball — Deron Williams was clutching at him, but the officials were not calling anything away from the basketball at this stage. He got the ball, and Kevin Garnett trapped him. Lowry fumbled it, and Patrick Patterson and a few Nets went after the ball. Lowry got there first. The play was already done, though. Patterson’s man, Paul Pierce, was now closer to Lowry. Patterson had been backing him down. Now, Pierce was in position to contest Lowry’s shot. He blocked it, ending the game. Lowry fell to the floor, and DeMar DeRozan fell on top of the point guard. “I just told him don’t worry about it,” DeRozan said. “I can sleep at night knowing he took that shot. I can live with that, Kyle taking that shot. Don’t be down on yourself. That’s all I was telling him. I was just being there to support him. I told him without him, we wouldn’t even be in this situation.” “That’s my man,” Lowry said. “It was a great brotherly moment.”
“This was a very difficult series,” Garnett said. “Very, very well coached team with some great players on it. I have a lot of respect for Kyle Lowry and his play. I appreciate the level of competition [at which] the series was played. It tested everybody’s will, here. If anything, I think we grew a little bit during the series. This is a very unorthodox team and they throw a lot of different things at you. [Any] night it can be a totally different series of guys who beat you. “I want to give a shout out to Toronto, the city. This has got to be one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in in a long time. [A lot of us] talked about different places we’d played — this place was rocking. [Deron Williams] was shooting free throws and our ears were ringing. Big shout out to the Toronto Raptors and their fans, and their city.”
Before the game, Ujiri said the only thing that scared him was that the two toughest games for a young team to play were Game 1 and Game 7. And so many things went wrong for two hours. Jonas Valanciunas froze, and DeRozan got the flu Saturday night and was rendered passive, and Greivis Vasquez vanished into foul trouble. So many times the building stood again and begged the Raptors to make a play, and the rally would die with a miss or a Nets basket or Terrence Ross, the poor kid. Amir Johnson, bless him, carried this team on one leg until he fouled out. The game should have been over, but wasn’t quite over. So many things were going wrong. How was it not over? The Raptors were down nine with 3:15 to go. And Lowry pulled them back one more time, and Patrick Patterson played without fear, and Ross, who finally looked like a basketball player again, stole an inbounds pass that Shaun Livingston tried to throw over the former slam dunk champion because there was nowhere else to go. The Raptors had a chance. This team never quit.
Much was made of the Raptors getting four important bench pieces from the Sacramento Kings in the Rudy Gay trade. The Nets, however, also made a mid-season deal with the Kings and the guy they got — Marcus Thornton — did serious damage in Game 7. Thornton scored 17 points on Sunday — matching his total from the previous six games. “This game, I made it come to me,” said Thornton, 4-of-6 from three-point range. “I was just trying to attack in spots where I could be effective. Credit my teammates for picking me up, too.”
The loss last year at Barclays Center spurred the wholesale changes the Nets engineered over the summer, with the team working a trade to bring Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn and hoping their championship résumé might rub off on the club. It turned out the Nets would need every last bit of wisdom and experience, every last trick and ounce of confidence, to defeat the young Raptors in their best-of-seven series. Pierce, who willed the Nets to victory in Game 1 with a series of tough shots, finished Game 7 with 10 points and 4 rebounds while battling foul trouble. Garnett chipped in 12 points and 11 rebounds. “It’s a great feeling,” said Williams, who contributed 13 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. “We lost a Game 7 last year. To be able to turn around and win a Game 7 on the road this year means a lot for this franchise.”
“That young man did everything he could to get to the basket,” Casey said of Lowry on the final possession. It was what they had drew up, Lowry going to the rim, though it was a slight variation of what was intended, with poor spacing that ultimately led to the blocked shot. “He tried to will his way to get that extra point.” One point separated the teams Sunday and after 11 meetings – in the regular season and playoffs – Toronto and Brooklyn each scored 1,070 points. The series was as close as they come. “We were right there,” Casey pointed out, and if a few calls from another highly critiqued officiating crew went their way they may have pulled it out. But in the end, the Nets were the better team Sunday and that was the case, more often than not, throughout the series.
“Don’t be down on yourself, that’s what I was telling him,” DeRozan said. “Without him, we wouldn’t even be in this situation.” “We’re only going to get better,” said Lowry, an unrestricted free agent as of July 1. “This is only the start for us and for the Raptors organization. Unfortunately, we came up short, but we put ourselves in a position to win.” In the end, the team that was supposed to be there — Brooklyn — will start a best-of-seven series against the Miami Heat in South Florida on Tuesday. The Nets won the regular season series against the Heat 4-0 and Casey said they would give the two-time champions everything they could handle. Meanwhile, the team nobody thought would do a thing — the plucky Raptors — are done for the year, with all kinds of questions about what is coming next. Will Lowry be back? Will Casey? Will Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and several others? It will be a long summer. For Masai Ujiri. For Casey, certainly for Lowry, DeRozan and the players. So agonizingly close. Once again.
At no point in the series did Ross’s confidence seem to wane. Every time he was asked about his less-than-impressive play, he chalked it up to tough shooting luck and the run of play; he did not get down on himself. “It’s going to be tough for a while but we did come a long way and I think we surpassed everybody’s expectations,” Ross said. “It’s been a great year; it’s a tough loss. We were so close but it’s something we can learn from.” While Ross was having his best game, his fellow Raptors sophomore, Valanciunas, was having his worst. The 7-foot-1 centre was a non-factor, with just three points and five rebounds in 28 minutes of the biggest game of his career. “This was my first year in the playoffs so I learned a lot,” Valanciunas said. “The best thing I learned was how to control my head before really important games. I have to do a better job of controlling my head, that is the next step for next year.”
“Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time,” Pierce said, “and I was there tonight.”
There are all kinds of things that can be taken away from the Raptors season, which ended the way no one could have predicted with a 104-103 loss to the Nets in Game 7 of the first round (“You would have thought I was medicated,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey when asked if he thought the Raptors had this season in them back in training camp). But one thing above all is that they were a true team: better than the sum of their parts, populated by good citizen role players deep on the bench and down-to-earth emerging stars at the top in the form of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry. So when Patterson saw Lowry in trouble as he turned to corner and headed for the rim – the Nets Kevin Garnett had knocked the ball loose momentarily — his instinct was to come to his aid. In the end it was that instinct that may have cost the Raptors the game, and the series. But it was the same instinct that got them this far in the first place: “We’re all we got,” Patterson said of the Raptors outlook this season. “We’re all we have.”
something happened as the fourth quarter started to wind down. The 2014 Toronto Raptors happened. As the Raptors have done all season, they somehow crawled back, putting together a 19 to 9 run closing the gap to only one point with 7 seconds left. And with the Nets looking to get back to the free-throw line to ice things once and for all, Terrence Ross used his length and athleticism to steal a Shaun Livingston inbounds pass and knock it off the Nets to give Toronto the ball back. And into Kyle Lowry’s hands for a chance to win the game, and the series. But it was not meant to be. Lowry’s initial drive was swarmed by the Nets’ defenders, forcing him to fumble with it and launch a tough, contested bank-shot in the paint, which was blocked by Paul Pierce.
So much of the Air Canada Centre crowd, silent after all the noise, with one last half-hearted chant of “Ref, you suck!” stood, not moving, not knowing what to say, where to go, what to feel, how to digest what almost happened and what didn’t. All in the blink of an eye. Kyle Lowry’s last-second shot to win Game 7a and win an historical and hysterical Eastern Conference playoff series never got to the basket. Paul Pierce, the shooter, the scorer, the future Hall of Fame member, blocked it. Lowry crashed to the court, not wanting to get up, with DeMar DeRozan draped all over him, as Jason Kidd, another heading to the Hall, raced from the Brooklyn bench in celebration. It was Toronto sports at its best and worst and sadly at its most predictable: Another chapter for the town that invented almost. Another script ending in heartbreak in a city that forever talks about what could have been.
Game Seven: Do or die; win or go home; the greatest two words in sports. For the Nets, it was their second consecutive postseason with a Game Seven. But, Last season didn’t turn out so well. This time around, the team looked to rise up to the challenge and get passed the Toronto Raptors on their home court. The Heat await the winner of this battle. The game was in the Nets’ control for most of the game, but a late Raptors comeback put the Nets chances in jeopardy. After a dreadful turnover, the Nets were able to stop Kyle Lowry’s last attempt at a game winning shot. The Nets win 104-103, and advance to the second round against the Miami Heat!
“I have to learn how to deal with pressure, how to be able to help a team,” said Valanciunas candidly. “I’ve got to do better job of controlling my head. So, that’s the next step, next year. I’m going to play better next time.” Veteran John Salmons, just a locker over from the big man, spent some time post-game telling JV the key is to stay in a regular routine, treat it the same as any other game. Kyle Lowry also provided him some advice. “Keep your head up. You played unbelievable all year,” Lowry said. “Remember this feeling. It’s not a good feeling to be going home in the first round and that’s all you can really think about to get better.”
This is to be credited to Brooklyn. The team took away DeMar DeRozan’s ability to cut away from the ball, countered innumerable quick-hit drives with proper charge takings, sometimes put the onus on a frustrated Terrence Ross (who had his best game of the series with a 5-of-12 shooting night, but shot less than 30 percent from the field in the postseason) and mitigated Amir Johnson’s impact on both ends by luring the Raptor big man into fouls. Johnson was an offensive revelation in Game 7, contributing 20 points and 10 rebounds in just 22 minutes, but his defensive help and offensive screening prowess were missed terribly in the minutes missed in advance of his eventual fouling out. Again, though, Brooklyn created its own fortune. The team’s spacing was on point all afternoon, it received fantastic bench contributions from Marcus Thornton (17 points in 20 minutes), Shaun Livingston (sturdy leadership, 10 points in nearly 18 minutes) and the wily Andray Blatche (nine points in 18 minutes), and the team kept its head on a swivel during Toronto’s expected late-game comeback. Kevin Garnett (12 points and 11 rebounds) managed his first double-double since Feb. 1, Deron Williams did solid work away from the ball as Joe Johnson worked his magic, and Kidd had his team ready and cognizant after every dead ball and/or timeout.
“T is only going to get better from this experience,” said Kyle Lowry, whose attempt to win the game was blocked at the buzzer by Paul Pierce. “He’s going to be a lot better, he’s only going to grow and over the last three games, he has gotten a lot better … For him to finish the game, finish the series the way he did on an upbeat note, his confidence is going to keep rising.”
Nobody was more crushed by the ending than Lowry, who lay on the floor motionless while DeRozan gave him a hug and words of encouragement. After the game, he stared off in the distance in the Raptors locker room, unable to speak to the media for about 45 minutes. He played about as hard as any human could in this series. According to James Herbert of ESPN, Paul Pierce apparently found him after the game and told him “you’re an animal, dog.”
“We had to bring energy off the bench to try to help the starters out. It’s been a long series and their bodies are a little beat up probably and we had to come in and step up ourselves,” said Blatche (nine points, seven rebounds), who offered a “Thank you, God” when Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry 0.6 seconds from the end. Appropriate utterance considering Blatche had guaranteed victory after Game 6.
After shelling out in excess of $71 million in 2013-14, Toronto enters the summer with Lowry as the only real question mark. At 28 years old and coming off by far his best season as a pro, Lowry is bound to fetch lucrative offers aplenty, be they by virtue of sheer salary or situational promise. Even if Lowry opts to bolt, however, the Raptors boast a compelling contingency plan: Greivis Vasquez, the versatile fourth-year point guard cleaved away from the Sacramento Kings in last December’s Rudy Gay trade. While Vasquez is certain to fetch a tender beyond his current $3.3 million qualifying offer, Toronto would have the right to match—which, if Lowry flees and the free-agent market dries up quickly, it may well do.
“I just reached up, jumped up and was able to get a hand on it,” Pierce said. “Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time.” Sometimes, fate seems to put you there. Because, really, this is how it had to be.