With a decisive 110-100 win over the lowly Milwaukee Bucks Monday, the Toronto Raptors became the winningest squad in the 19-year history of the franchise and remained in contention for the No.3 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Recording its 48th win of the year, the playoff-bound team has now tallied more victories than any Raptors squad that starred Vince Carter or Chris Bosh. It’s quite a contrast for a team that had 48 losses last season, and few if any gave this year’s Toronto team any chance at a division title when the season began. Yet in a subdued ceremony before Monday’s game, the Raptors unfurled the second Atlantic Division banner in club history before easily dismantling the Bucks to stay neck-and-neck with the Chicago Bulls for the No.3 seed.
The Raptors were led by 25 points from Grievis Vasquez, 24 from Kyle Lowry. Big man Jonas Valanciunas contributed 14 points and 13 rebounds, while Tyler Hansbrough came off the bench to add a physical 12 points and 11 boards. The victory assured the Raptors would finish better than the 2006-07 Raptors, a team who finished with 47 wins.
The Raptors chose to rest DeMar DeRozan for the night, the team’s biggest contributor of points, and the only Toronto player with big minutes who has yet to sit out games down the stretch before the playoffs. In his place, Vasquez was a spark plug, sinking five three-pointers. The Venezuelan guard hit six straight shots before finally missing one halfway through the second quarter. He also contributed seven assists gaining valuable minutes of experience for the Raptors, including a memorable dish-off to Amir Johnson while on the run, which Johnson converted into a monster dunk.
“I’ve been ready for any opportunity since I got here,” said Vasquez. “I’m all about winning and when I have a chance to start, I want to help the team win and have a presence in the game. Now we have 48 and that’s important, but we’re not satisfied and we need to get better.
Johnson, hurling into the front row of seats after that monster dunk, took a moment to pop his jersey among the crowd in the sort of small, prideful gesture this franchise had seldom enjoyed in recent years. The veteran power forward, who only returned two games ago from a four-game layoff with a sore ankle, had 10 points, five boards and three assists, working back into 27 minutes of playing time as he continues to improve his game-conditioning after missing contests.
“It felt good to get my bounce back,” said Johnson, the fifth-year Raptor. “It made me smile to look up [to the rafters], to have something accomplished, to look up and see a banner up there.”
The Bucks, who fall to 15-66, have the worst record on the NBA, and entered the night with little reason to make it up and down the court. Still Toronto had to make sure they took care of business, entering the night tied for third place in the East standings with the Chicago Bulls, needing a solid finish in the last two games of the regular season to stay in the hunt for the No.3 seed.
The Raptors raced out to a 32-19 lead in the first quarter, 59-46 at the half. But Toronto, who has been sagging defensively in recent games, allowed the NBA’s worst team to inch a little closer in the fourth quarter, closing within seven points.
Ramon Sessions had 21 to lead the Bucks. Jeff Adrien had 19 and Brandon Knight contributed 18.
The Raptors entered the game tied for third spot in the East with the Bulls, who beat the Orlando Magic 108-95. If the two remain tied following Wednesday’s final games of the regular season, Toronto will clinch the No.3 seed in the playoffs by virtue of the fact that they hold the tie-breaker with Chicago. The third-seed would guarantee Toronto plays the No. 6 seed. If Chicago wins Wednesday and Toronto loses, the Raptors would instead settle for the No.4 seed, earning a first-round matchup against the No. 5 seed. They will face either the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Bobcats or Washington Wizards.
The Raptors (48-33) play their final regular-season game versus the Knicks in New York before beginning the playoffs either Saturday or Sunday in Toronto. The Knicks have already been eliminated from the post-season. Chicago will face Charlotte on Wednesday.
Head Coach Dwane Casey hasn’t yet decided whether DeRozan will rest or play Wednesday’s game. He’s been pleased with the pep in the step that both Johnson and Lowry (knee) got after their recent rest.
“I’m more worried about us than I am who we play,” he said. “I’m not going into this final game trying to control who we play. I’m more worried about our health, rest for our guys, and rhythm, and there’s a fine line between the two.”