TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors have made history.
And now they head into uncharted territory – the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 21 years.
Raptors’ all-star Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 63 points in a thorough 116-89 dismantling of the Miami Heat in Sunday’s thrilling do-or-die Game 7 of their conference semifinals.
Lowry had 35 points while DeRozan chipped in with 28, playing with the heart and hustle Raptors fans had seen so many times in Toronto’s 56-win regular season. And they got plenty of help, as Bismack Biyombo had 16 rebounds to go with 17 points, DeMarre Carroll chipped in with 14 points, and Patrick Patterson had 11 points and 11 boards.
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Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic scored 16 points apiece for Miami.
In a fierce back-and-forth series that saw three overtime games, and a slew of injuries, Sunday’s thrilling finale saw the Raptors lead most of the way. They battled hard on both ends of the floor with a ferocity they hadn’t shown in this series, and opened up a 17-point lead in a solid third quarter.
They went into the fourth ahead 86-78, and when Biyombo muscled his way in for a monstrous dunk – and Usain Bolt celebration – then Carroll drilled a three and the delirious Air Canada Centre crowd went nuts.
Things got heated when Biyombo and Josh McRoberts had to be separated, Biyombo furious after being clotheslined by the Heat forward. McRoberts was assessed a flagrant foul, and the incident only served to further fire up Toronto and its crowd.
Toronto could do little wrong down the stretch. By the time Patterson followed up a basket with a pair of free throws, the Raptors led by 20, and anxious Toronto fans could finally take a collective deep breath.
Lowry drilled a three with 3:23 to play that followed up a basket by DeRozan, and the Raptors went up by a whopping 25 points. When the Raptors’ all-stars left the game with two-and-a-half minutes to play, the crowd ushered them off the court with a standing ovation.
A chant of “We want Cleveland!” broke out in the dying seconds.
Now the Raptors face the well-rested Cleveland Cavaliers in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario. The Cavs host Toronto in Game 1 on Tuesday after a nine-day break, while Toronto has played eight games in 15 days.
On Sunday, Toronto clobbered Miami on the boards 50-30, and outscored its opponent 27-9 in second-chance points.
The Raptors had made the second round just one other time, in 2001, when they were a missed Vince Carter jumper from making the conference finals in a loss to Philadelphia.
Toronto was the last NBA team to drop a Game 7 at home, in 2014, when Lowry’s last-second shot was blocked in a loss to Brooklyn.
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The Raptors were one of four active NBA teams – the others are Charlotte, New Orleans and Los Angeles Clippers – to never play in the conference finals.
The raucous crowd also included Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban, Toronto FC star striker Sebastian Giovinco, sprinter Andre De Grasse, and MMA fighter Michael (The Count) Bisping.
The Heat had forced a Game 7 with a 103-91 victory on Friday in Miami.
It was the second winner-takes-all game for Toronto in these playoffs, as they knocked out Indiana in a Game 7 in the opening round.
Thousands of fans braved the cold – and fittingly, lightly falling snow – to watch the game on the giant screen in Maple Leaf Square. Their cheers could be heard in nearby Union Station.
The line to get in several hours earlier had snaked around the Air Canada Centre.
Both teams looked tight to start, but sparked by 11 points from DeRozan, the Raptors took a 25-24 lead into the second quarter.
Joe Johnson’s personal 6-0 run put Miami up by a point midway through the second, but Lowry, with 12 points in the quarter, led the Raptors to a 53-47 lead at halftime.