TORONTO – Another home victory, another accolade in the Toronto Raptors’ record-breaking campaign.
But with five games to go in the regular season, the Raptors’ sole focus is to hit the NBA post-season ground running.
DeMar DeRozan poured in 26 points Tuesday as the Raptors roared past the Charlotte Hornets 96-90, tying their franchise record of 30 home wins.
But records meant little in the post-game dressing room, where all the talk – minus Kyle Lowry, who was still celebrating Villanova’s NCAA victory – was about rounding into form for the team’s third consecutive playoff run.
“The only thing we can focus on is just us, finishing off these last five games, treating them as if they are playoff games and staying focused,” said Patrick Patterson, who had 10 points off the bench. “Working on our rotation, and hopefully getting (DeMarre Carroll) back healthy and playing again, and just focus on what we need to prepare for going into the playoffs.”
Lowry had 21 points on the night barely 14 hours after landing back home after watching his alma mater beat North Carolina in Monday’s thrilling NCAA final. He spoke to the media wearing an NCAA victory T-shirt and hat.
Lowry leapt in the air when Wildcats junior Kris Jenkins hit the winning three at the buzzer.
“I jumped higher than I ever jumped in my career,” Lowry said, straight-faced. “It was an amazing moment, honestly for those kids and for the program, and coach (Jay) Wright. For me, it was just a passionate moment, and I’m glad to say I was a part of that moment, and I went to that school.”
Tuesday’s game was a “an old Eastern Conference knockdown, drag it out, knock’em, rock’em, sock’em game,” said coach Dwane Casey, that saw the Raptors (52-25) set the pace early and lead by as many as 19 points. They took a 16-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Hornets chipped away at Toronto’s lead over the final few minutes, and when Marvin Williams drilled a three-pointer with 1:09 to play, it pulled the Hornets to within six.
DeRozan responded with a driving hook shot with 40 seconds left, Kemba Walker shot back with five straight points to pull the Hornets to within four, but a pair of Cory Joseph free throws sealed Toronto’s victory.
“Despite the lead we had, and despite the way we were playing, I think we just got unfocused,” Patterson said.
Jonas Valanciunas added 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Joseph added 11 for the Raptors, who can break the record for home wins Friday when they host Indiana.
Jeremy Lin led the Hornets (44-33) with 21 points.
The Raptors can finish no worse than a best-ever No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Teams three through eight, on the other hand, are duking it out for positions, with just five games separating the six squads.
“I think we pay attention to (the standings) as just being basketball fans, what’s going on, seeing the competitive nature other teams are playing with, fighting for a spot, whether it’s homecourt or just to stay in the playoffs,” DeRozan said.
But they have no preferences who they’ll face.
“Naw. Whoever it is, we’ve just got to be prepared for it. But we can’t hope for somebody,” DeRozan said. “Whoever it’s going to be, that’s who it’s going to be and we’ve got to get ready for it.”
Casey believes trying to determine their own playoff fate can come back to bite them.
“I think the basketball gods will get you every time if you start trying to mess with the game,” Casey said. “You’ve got take what the schedule gives you or whoever the standings give you; you’ve got to look at it but you can’t sit here and say, I want to play them, I’d much rather play them, we match up better. No, you’ll get what you ask for.”
The capacity crowd of 19,800 at the Air Canada Centre – that included Blue Jays legend and baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar – was the 78th straight sellout, a stretch that goes back to November of 2014.
The Raptors were in control virtually from the opening whistle. They shot 50 per cent and doubled Charlotte on the boards in the first quarter, and led 26-16 going into the second.
DeRozan had nine points in the second as Toronto maintained control, and took a 56-42 advantage into the dressing room at halftime.
A DeRozan jumper late in the third quarter put the Raptors up by 19 points, their biggest lead of the game, and they rode a 75-59 advantage into the fourth.