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It took the franchise two decades, but Raptor fans will be happy with the eventual result. Toronto is in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. The achievement is not lost on anyone who has followed the team since it was introduced in 1995-96, nor anyone who watched a lone missed Vince Carter jumper denied the team a shot at the third round back in 2001.
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Toronto earned the trip by downing the Miami Heat in Game 7 on Sunday afternoon by a 116-89 score. The 116 points marked the most the Raptors scored in eight postseason trips and 56 total playoff games.
Raps All-Star Kyle Lowry had another brilliant performance in the win, notching 35 points, while fellow All-Star and backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan added 28. Though all five Heat starters finished in double digits with guards Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic tying for the team lead with 16, the Heat were kept at arm’s length all game prior to the Raptors opening things up in the second half.
The first half saw something all observers had been begging the Raptors to come through with since the beginning of the series – all-out effort, and some strain of confidence while playing with expectations. The No. 2-seeded Raptors won 56 games this season and held the home-court advantage, but Miami became the latest team to steal Game 1 and said advantage at the series’ outset, and the Raptors failed to close the conference semifinals out with a Game 6 defeat on Friday evening.
That loss featured 36 points from Lowry, but it also marked a turnaround performance for the point guard as it came on the heels of 35.5 percent shooting from the floor in the first five games of this series.
Working mostly from the free-throw line, Lowry scored 16 first half points in Game 7 on just eight shots, with DeRozan joining him with 15 points despite missing 11 of 17 shots. Toronto as a whole knocked in 10 more free throws than Miami over the first two quarters, while maintaining a significant rebounding advantage that would sustain for the rest of the contest: Toronto outrebounded the Heat 50-30.
To those who had been watching the series prior to Sunday’s nationally broadcast Game 7, this should come as no surprise.
Due to an injury to center Hassan Whiteside (the league’s leading shot blocker during the regular season) and defensively ineffective play from reserve center Amar’e Stoudemire, the Heat were forced to go with 6-foot-7 rookie Justise Winslow as starting center for the second consecutive game. The gambit worked in Game 6, despite Winslow being outplayed statistically by Raptors center Bismack Biyombo (who outrebounded him 13-3), but Miami’s long arms and active hands helped make up for the unorthodox lineup.
The same couldn’t be said in Game 7.
Toronto continually took advantage of Miami’s size and speed deficiencies inside and out, respectively, as several Raptor scores were followed by Heat guards or swingmen wondering where, exactly, all the shot-blockers had gone. Winslow and Luol Deng combined for five blocks – but those five possessions hardly acted as a template.
Still, Miami hung close with Wade and Dragic adding 10 first-half points apiece, and veteran Joe Johnson picking his spots and finishing with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting. With both teams working with slim rotations that barely featured nine players, the Raptors failed to move the deficit past seven points until a Lowry lay-in with 8:46 to go in the third quarter put Toronto up by nine. Miami closed the gap to six with less than a minute to go in that period on a Tyler Johnson layup, but from there the rout (which included a 30-11 fourth-quarter advantage) was on.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey, working within that shortened rotation, did well to stagger the minutes of DeRozan and Lowry, two players who have battled injuries this spring. DeRozan’s one-on-one play to end the third quarter, with Lowry sitting, allowed Toronto to maintain its lead and not let the fear of a collapse enter into things. Late in a series of possessions DeMar hit several pull-up jumpers in isolation sets to keep the nerves at bay.
“I just wanted to go out there with a chip on my shoulder,” DeRozan told NBA TV after the game. “We all had to.”
By the time Lowry re-entered, it was all over. With Miami basically playing with four guards plus Luol Deng, the Raptors put together a 10-2 run to take a 14-point lead three minutes into the fourth. Miami’s answer? Once again, it was a 6-7 rookie in Winslow; but despite his significant defensive gifts it hardly mattered.
Toronto center Bismack Biyombo’s one attempt to take advantage of the rookie in the low block failed miserably (he barely caught him on a jump hook), but beyond that the big man was key – Biyombo notched 17 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks, while keeping his wits about him following a flagrant foul sent his way from Miami reserve Josh McRoberts, and a Hack-a-Biyombo turn in the second half that saw him miss 7-12 from the free throw line.
The Raptors just had all the answers. And, for once, that streak of confidence while working at home.
Dwyane Wade again surprised in making 2-4 from behind the three-point line (netting him 12 on the postseason … or, “12 more than he made from Dec. 16 until April 29”) but Toronto defender DeMarre Carroll stayed far away from the future Hall of Famer on the perimeter when Wade didn’t have the ball – clogging the lane should any Miami teammate attempt to drive, long enough to get back should someone kick out to the future Hall of Famer.
Miami may have gone smaller, but they certainly weren’t any faster to where they needed to be on both ends, and the Heat’s mix of young and old could just not balance things out. Meanwhile, Toronto’s group of in-prime veterans finally found the right source of inspiration – fear of an at-home embarrassment for the third straight postseason.
The good news is that Toronto will get to visit that home court crowd again on Saturday. The bad news between now and then is that they’ll have to play the Cleveland Cavaliers, heretofore undefeated in the postseason, twice in Games 1 and 2.
The best news, overall? The Toronto Raptors have made it to the Eastern finals. Finally.
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