Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had spent the early part of this postseason inexplicably missing shots and making it seem as though the Toronto Raptors' playoff dreams were destined to hit a brick wall. But they came alive late in their series against the Miami Heat and blossomed on Sunday, as the all-star duo helped deliver the franchise its first berth in the NBA's Eastern Conference final.
Behind 35 points from Lowry and 28 from DeRozan, and a defensive effort that held Miami superstar Dwyane Wade to just 16 points, the Raptors won Game 7 116-89 to end a wild series. The conference final will pit the No. 2-seeded Raps against the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Raptors were holding their third Game 7 in three seasons, the second in just two weeks. Toronto had failed to clinch the conference semi-final in Friday's Game 6, so there was anxiousness in the air at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday.
Black and white T-shirts were given to spectators to create the pattern of a Maple Leaf. Canada's only NBA franchise was once again hitting hard on its favourite theme: Us versus Them. "They don't want to see you advance," hollered the in-house host inside the ACC. "They don't want to see you face Cleveland."
DeRozan delivered with 11 first-quarter points. Wade picked up two fouls early in the first and came off the floor, but Luol Deng, Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic kept up Miami's scoring. The Raps held a slim 25-24 lead after the quarter.
Inside the second, Wade got hot and so did Heat teammate Joe Johnson – the same guy who scored 26 points to help the Brooklyn Nets topple the Raptors in Game 7 two years ago. DeRozan cooled – hitting just one of his five field-goal attempts in the quarter, while Lowry exploded for 12 points – including a pair of three-pointers. Toronto took a 53-47 lead into the locker room.
The Raptors went on a big run inside the third quarter with the kind of high-energy buckets that drove the ACC crowd delirious – dunks and driving layups from the charismatic Bismack Biyombo, and three-pointers from Lowry and DeMarre Carroll. Toronto stretched its lead to 17 points.
Miami took advantage of some Toronto turnovers and shrunk the lead briefly to eight, but it was short-lived. The Raps again stretched the lead in the fourth and a physical game grew even more so. Josh McRoberts and Biyombo had back-to-back clotheslines on each other. Winslow caught up to a fast-breaking Patterson and took him to the floor.
While so many games in this series shifted tones dramatically, Toronto held on to the lead and dominated this one. For a third game in a row, Lowry was back – not the guy who clanked and air-balled shots in all directions earlier in the playoffs and made just 31 of his 98 in the Indiana series. The Raps, who made just four of their 16 three-point attempts in Game 6, this time made 9-of-19 – five from Lowry. The star point guard also added nine assists.
Toronto got few points from anyone but Lowry and DeRozan on Friday, but support came in heaps on Sunday. Biyombo contributed 17 points and 16 boards. Carroll added 14 points in addition to his big defence on Wade. Patterson had 11 points and 11 boards and Terrence Ross added eight – including a pair of threes.
"They're our guys, they carried us all year," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said of his all-stars. "Yeah, there were some moments when you wondered, 'Man, are they ever going to make a shot?' But you knew deep in your heart those guys would come around – a scorer never forgets how to score.
"It's important that you stay with the plan, and with your philosophy, and trust in your guys, and I think that's what we did – we believed in our guys. The buy-in the players had was unbelievable, and they never lost confidence in each other or the plan."
A series that featured so many overtime games ended in a lop-sided Toronto win, with Lowry and DeRozan coming out a few minutes early to emotional hugs from everyone on the Raptors bench. Toronto even got a couple of minutes of playoff experience for its youngsters as the game closed.
The Heat had won their previous four Game 7s dating to 2012. The Raptors, who went in with a 0-13 record in playoff games starting before 4 p.m., finally won one.
Toronto opens the next round in Cleveland against LeBron James and the Cavs. Games 1 and 2 are Tuesday and Thursday, before the series shifts to Toronto next Saturday. The Cavs, who will be highly favoured, have played just eight games through two playoff series – all wins – and have been resting since May 8. Toronto has gutted through 14 playoff games.
"We ain't satisfied; that's just our mentality," Lowry said. "We kept it internal, but our goal is to play as long as possible. Yes, we're excited, we want to continue and get four more wins and get to the final. We know we've got a tough task, but it's still basketball. They've got to lace 'em up, and we've got to lace 'em up."