Kyle Lowry had carried the Toronto Raptors on his back many times during a captivating season, so when he dribbled in to the basket, to attempt a series-saving shot with one second left on the clock in Game 7, the frantic crowd at the Air Canada Centre held its breath.
Lowry piled in 13 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Raptors out of a 10-point disadvantage, but his final driving shot, through a meat-grinder of Brooklyn Nets players, didn't fall on Sunday. Instead, the Nets triumphed 104-103 to win the first-round playoff series, leaving the Raptors to pack up for the season.
Lowry finished with 28 points, while the Raptors got 20 from Amir Johnson, 18 from DeMar DeRozan and 16 from Patrick Patterson, while Jonas Valanciunas had just three. Brooklyn, who was powered by a 26-point showing from Joe Johnson, moves on to face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semi-final instead of Toronto.
"I didn't get the shot off that I wanted to get off," said Lowry, who remained sullen, seated in front of his locker, still in his uniform, long after his teammates hit the showers. "A lot of people didn't expect us to be here, but we did … this is only a step for us … unfortunately we came up short in a game we put ourselves in position to win."
Things looked ominous when the game opened. Brooklyn's Paul Pierce and Alan Anderson both drained three-point shots in the first two minutes. Then Amir Johnson fell awkwardly and had obvious ankle pain.
But the veteran Raptor soldiered on, pouring in eight points over two minutes. He seemed to be the only one rolling offensively for Toronto for much of the early part of the game. But he was also fouling.
Pierce and Kevin Garnett were troubling Toronto, as was the unexpected Marcus Thornton. By halftime, Lowry's old reliable Lowry was 2-for-8 shooting from the field and had picked up three fouls. DeRozan had mustered just four points. Valaciunas hadn't contributed a single bucket. Toronto was trailing 61-53.
Johnson's scoring was keeping Toronto afloat. But as the second half opened, he took his fifth foul and left the game. He came back briefly but quickly tallied that sixth and his day was over.
The rest of the Raptors went to work, chipping away at the deficit. Lowry was finding his shooting touch, and DeRozan was wiggling to the basket, and then flashing that fiery face he makes when he gets in the groove. But Andray Blatche and Johnson kept hitting shots to help the Nets maintain a comfortable eight-point cushion.
It was the first time Toronto had hosted a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs or played a potential series-winning game at home. The ACC hadn't played host to a Game 7 since the 2004 NHL playoffs, when the Toronto Maple Leafs ousted the Ottawa Senators. The city embraced the Raptors wholeheartedly – fans inside and out rollicking as they had since the outset of Game 1, when general manager Masai Ujiri had screamed, involving an expletive, "F--- Brooklyn."
"Nobody picked us to come this far, win this many games," DeRozan said. "We understand now what it takes … we have to be able to execute down in the clutch, and that's what they did … that's definitely something to learn from."
Behind scoring from Lowry and Patterson in a frenzied final quarter, the Raptors whittled the Nets' lead down to five coming into the final minute, despite Brooklyn's Johnson also having a 13-point quarter. They then jockeyed within one.
Sean Livingston hit free throws to enhance Brooklyn's lead to three. Then Terrence Ross sunk a lay-in to pull back within a point with eight seconds left. The second-year Raptor, who had struggled throughout this series, then had a moment of redemption, bouncing the ball off Joe Johnson and out of bounds to set up a potential winning possession for Toronto.
Lowry dribbled in to attempt the winning shot through towering Nets defenders and launched it up over a Pierce block – a clean block the 15-year NBA veteran would call one of the biggest of his career.
"That play will be fresh in my memory throughout the summer," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "That young man did everything he could to get to the basket."