NEW YORK — The Toronto Raptors were not supposed to be here. Not in Brooklyn, not anywhere, not in late April, battling through a taut playoff series, trading blows with one of the NBA's most seasoned postseason teams.
Kyle Lowry was not supposed to be here—unless "here" meant as a point guard for the New York Knicks, who tried to acquire him last December.
DeMar DeRozan was not supposed to be here. Like Lowry, he had been put up for auction, to be sold off for draft picks and prospects and the glory of salary-cap room.
The Raptors were too young, too expensive, too uninspiring to be kept together.
Yet there they were Sunday night, still together, still young, but growing fast, still rewriting their story.
There was Lowry, pushing through a cranky knee, lofting a skyhook over Kevin Garnett in crunch time. There was DeRozan, with mangled fingers, scoring 24 points and taking not one, but two charges down the stretch to help secure a 87-79 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, tying this series at 2-2.
The Raptors regained the home-court edge they lost in Game 1. They avoided a 3-1 hole that surely would have foretold the end of this fairy-tale run. They left an unmistakable impression.
"They're earning a lot of people's respect around the league," said the Nets' Paul Pierce, presumably including himself in that group.
"A lot of ballsy players," said Kevin Garnett, doling out praise as only he could.
In a season of rapid, unexpected growth, the Raptors just delivered their signature moment: a series-saving victory, on the road, with half of their lineup hobbled or otherwise aching.
Now the series is a best-of-three affair, with two of those games in Toronto, and the team from the auction block seems primed for a memorable postseason run.
"We're on a mission," said coach Dwane Casey.
Any lingering doubts about the Raptors' fortitude were answered late Sunday, when they held the Nets without a point for the final 4:58, closing the game with a 9-0 burst, including a three-pointer from Greivis Vasquez and a silky running skyhook shot from Lowry over the towering Garnett.
A skyhook? Lowry chuckled on the postgame dais.
"I think that's the first time this year in a game," he said. "I did it in practice like, once."
That Lowry finished the game strong, despite foul trouble and knee pain, only made his performance that much more admirable.
For the second straight game, the Nets simply disintegrated down the stretch. They survived on Friday, having built a 15-point cushion before coming undone, and held on for the win.
This time, the Nets had no such luxury. Their final nine possessions looked like this: miss, miss, turnover, turnover, turnover, turnover, miss, miss, miss. Deron Williams—who on Friday missed three free throws in crunch time—accounted for three of those five misses late Sunday. Pierce, whose late-game shooting delivered Game 1 to the Nets, missed his final two shots in Game 4.
All told, the Nets went 3-of-17 in the fourth quarter, looking nothing like a team worth $190 million in payroll and luxury taxes.
Just as surprising as Lowry's skyhook: DeRozan drawing two offensive fouls in the final minutes, one against Joe Johnson and one against Garnett, who promptly turned to the nearest referee and bellowed, "Flop!"
A Toronto reporter asked DeRozan if the two drawn charges were a career high, sending Lowry into a fit of laughter as he leaned back in his chair. Next to him, DeRozan smiled wide.
This has been a season of incredible growth for the Raptors' star guards, neither of whom had made a playoff appearance until last week, and neither of whom had been considered stars until recently.
DeRozan, 24, became an All-Star this season, averaging 22.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Many observers thought the 28-year-old Lowry deserved the honor as well, and he is certain to appear on a lot of All-NBA ballots after averaging 17.9 points and 7.4 assists this season.
"He's matured in so many ways," Casey said of Lowry. "Last year, two years ago at this time, he probably couldn't play with five fouls. Or he would get so frustrated we'd take him out. But he's more mature and more focused."
By season's end, the Lowry-DeRozan backcourt was regarded as one of the best in the NBA. Four months ago, they were nearly disbanded.
The Raptors, under new general manager Masai Ujiri, initially planned for a rebuilding year, to pare down the payroll and, yes, take advantage of a rich draft class. Ujiri duped the Knicks into taking Andrea Bargnani last summer and dumped Rudy Gay on the Sacramento Kings in December, setting the stage for a total demolition.
Toronto nearly had a deal in place to send Lowry to New York, until Knicks owner James Dolan quashed it, rather than surrender another first-round pick.
Instead, the Raptors blossomed into an overnight contender. Without Gay dominating the offense, DeRozan was free to assert himself and develop his game. Lowry, who had long been considered a malcontent, seized the moment and became the leader the Raptors sorely needed.
After starting the season 7-13, Toronto won 13 of its next 18 games, pushing over .500 and into the lead in the Atlantic Division.
No one saw it coming—and that includes the man who presided over it all. Ujiri inherited an overpriced, lackluster team that appeared to have no viable future. It seemed absolutely deserving of a wrecking ball.
"There's no genius here," Ujiri said of the stunning turnaround. "That's the honest truth. You pray for these things to happen. You hope that moves come together. But I'm not going to sit here and say, hey, like it was mapped out."
Being wrong is rarely this enjoyable.
By the time Lowry stepped to the foul line with 30.5 seconds left Sunday night, deflated Nets fans were heading toward the exits, while a solid core of Toronto fans stayed put and chanted, "Let's go, Raptors!"
It had been 13 years since any Raptors team won a road playoff game. This Raptors team was not even supposed to be here. Yet they now stand two victories shy of a trip to the conference semifinals.
Someone asked if they had played their best game yet. The Raptors' star guards, who had played so brilliantly together all night, stepped on each other's answers, leaning into the microphones simultaneously.
"No, no," said Lowry. "No, no," said DeRozan.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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