The Toronto Raptors couldn't hold off the desperate New York Knicks on a mission to keep their playoff hopes alive. But thanks to a win for the Atlanta Hawks over the Brooklyn Nets later Friday night, the Raptors still clinched the Atlantic Division and home-court advantage in the postseason.
Behind 30 points from Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks handed the Raptors their first loss in five games, 108-100, to remain in the hunt for the No.8 seed in the Eastern Conference. A Toronto win would have clinched the division in front of their home fans at the Air Canada Centre. Instead, they had to wait and get the news 30 minutes after leaving the floor that Brooklyn's loss gave Toronto the division.
"I'm excited about it, it's good for us, but I'm more concerned about getting better," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey right after getting word. "I'm excited for the fans because this franchise has had its highs and lows."
The Raptors, now 46-33, earned their first division title since 2006-07, when the team won a franchise-best 47 games. They can still strike down that record with two wins in their three remaining games.
However, the Chicago Bulls won on Friday night and pulled ahead of Toronto in the East, demoting the Raptors -- at least for the moment -- to the No.4 seed. If the playoffs began today, Toronto would host Brooklyn in the first round.
The Knicks weren't even sure Anthony would be able to play Friday night, as he had been ailing from a sore right shoulder in recent days and struggled mightily in the team's back-to-back defeats prior to beating the Raptors. But the Knicks star forward got past the woes Friday night, powering to the basket routinely and also contributing eight rebounds. Furthermore, a visibly motivated Amar'e Stoudamire broke away for 24 points and 11 boards.
The Raptors had their regular starting five reunited for the first time since last Monday in Miami as Amir Johnson eased back into action after missing the last four games with a sore ankle. But they got off to a sluggish start, making just two of their first 12 shots in the opening five minutes of play.
Soon, Kyle Lowry got hot. He set a new franchise record for three-pointers made in a single season (180), besting Morris Peterson's 177 set during the 2005-06 season. He finished with 25 points, DeMar DeRozan dished in 26, while Terrence Ross had 13 and Jonas Valanciunas had 14. Johnson had no points in 17 minutes.
The Raptors led 26-24 after the first quarter, then 47-45 at the half. But buckets were much harder to come by for Toronto in the second half. Three-point attempts were off and put-backs were just bouncing the wrong way. The crowd at the Air Canada Centre went from exploding for three-pointers to gasping in frustration for shots that just wouldn't fall.
Knicks big man Tyson Chandler didn't have his finest night. He was in foul trouble before the first half was over, was held to six points and even missed a sure-fire dunk in embarrassing fashion. Hot-shooting Knicks guard J.R. Smith – who took an NBA-record 22 three-point attempts last week versus the Miami Heat – had 15 points versus Toronto.
Still the Raptors found themselves in a seven-point hole in the final minute of play Friday night. Even as time evaporated, it appeared the scrappy never-say-die Raptors on a four game win streak, might find a way again. But wobbly shots were fired and missed the mark. Many Raptors fans left the building with time still on the clock, which they haven't done in several games.
"It's sweet and sour; sweet that we clinched the division, but sucks we didn't win it by a win," said Lowry." "We'll take the division champs any day."
Toronto now goes on the road to face the Detroit Pistons Sunday, before returning home Monday to host the Milwaukee Bucks. They close the regular season Monday in New York versus the Knicks.
The Raptors could still pull back ahead of the Bulls to re-grasp the third seed.
"I don't think anyone would have picked us to win [the division]," said DeRozan. "So it is definitely an accomplishment."