The Raptors were greeted to adoring cheers as they walked onto the floor at the Air Canada Centre yesterday.
The crowd was dressed in a mix of red and black T-shirts, emblazoned with 'Red and Black Attack.'
The love rained down. It was a playoff atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it was also about 10:15 in the morning and the Raptors were coming on the court for their game-day shoot around, mostly still groggy with sleep. The crowd were Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. staff, full of coffee and out of their offices for a pep rally.
The players looked surprised and a bit sheepish but it's the thought that counts.
Their morning pep rally is the closest the Raptors will get to feeling a rush of postseason excitement this year. They did their part last night, playing a reasonably crisp game against a New York Knicks team playing out the string. It will go in the books as a 131-113 win, with Andrea Bargnani doing a cameo as a primary scorer in the final week of the season without Chris Bosh alongside him, finishing with 24 points two nights after his 33-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons, while rookie DeMar DeRozen matched him with a career-high 24. Amir Johnson had 21 and Sonny Weems 18 as Toronto shot 65 per cent from the floor for the game.
The Raptors playoff fate was sealed about 1200 kilometres to the south when the Chicago Bulls won their final game of the season against the Charlotte Bobcats and the right to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
The Bulls earned their way in, finishing the season on a 10-4 run, including a blowout of the Raptors at the ACC on Sunday that cost Toronto the right to author their playoff destiny. The Raptors? Their playoff run was a limp, featuring an 11-19 record after the All-Star break which they cruised into comfortably in fifth spot in the East and entertaining thoughts about making a run at Boston for the Atlantic Division title and home-court advantage in the first round. Injuries were a factor, with Chris Bosh missing 12 games with a sprained ankle and broken nose and Antoine Wright missing the club's last three games.
But the Raptors were at full strength and winners of three straight when they lost at home to the Golden State Warriors on April 4th, the start of their season-defining five-game April losing streak that cost them their chance at postseason play.
The damage was long done by the time the Raptors took the floor against the Knicks.
"It's a tough game," Raptors head coach Jay Triano said beforehand. "We have some pressure on us and they're just out there playing."
The Raptors had no trouble scoring against a token Knicks defence and led 73-64 at half after shooting 69.8 per cent from the floor. As has been their habit, they did little defending either as New York was able to pull within four midway through the third quarter on the strength of 14 three-pointers on their way to 15 for the game to Toronto's seven.
At the ACC, the scoreboards were devoid of NBA scores, so there was no scoreboard watching to be done, but as the Raptors were putting the finishing touches on the Knicks, the Bulls were putting the finish to the Raptors playoff hopes.
The talk has already turned to the future. The Knicks were completing their sixth straight season out of the playoffs, the last two by design as they positioned themselves to be major players in this summer's free agent market.
"It was tough," said Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni. "The NBA is tough anyway, and when you're losing it's really tough."
The Knicks can comfort themselves with hope - the notion that this summer they'll be able to add a pair of premier free agents, with Chris Bosh a widely rumoured target. The Raptors head into the off-season flooded with uncertainty, those nifty red and black playoff T-shirts the staff wore? They can keep them to use next season. Or more likely a season or two after that.
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