The Raptors secured their second consecutive Atlantic Division title, and third in franchise history, with their 94-83 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. It was finally something to celebrate, and perhaps a corner turned, the players said, on several weeks of frustration.
"I think I said last game, all we needed was something to get us back going and put us back in the right mood," said DeMar DeRozan. "Just knowing we've clinched the division, this could be the thing that pushes us over the hump, and gives us what we need to gain our swag back. That's all it is. Once we get back on track, we'll be right where we left off."
Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points, while Lou Williams added 18 for the Raptors (43-30), who were missing injured all-star Kyle Lowry. James Johnson added 17 points, Amir Johnson had 11, and Terrence Ross finished with 10.
"This is a small victory. We're not satisfied with this," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, wearing his red T-shirt over his shirt and tie for the post-game news conference. "We've got to get this shadow, this cloud off our shoulder — you know, 'woe is me' — and think positive to build some small steps going forward.
"The guys picked up on that tonight."
Jeremy Lin topped the Lakers (19-52) with 18 points. Robert Sacre of North Vancouver, B.C., added seven points.
The Raptors have been desperate to shrug off their struggles and head into the post-season on a high note. At the other end of the spectrum, the Lakers have been eliminated from playoff contention.
But it wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Raptors finally broke open what had been a close game. They led 71-66 with one quarter left, but had stretched that to 17 points by the time Williams scored on a layup with 3:16 to play.
Williams called clinching the division a "small milestone."
"Especially with the past month or so we've been having just some ups and downs. It's great to accomplish something tonight," Williams said.
"We put so much pressure on ourselves to have a great season sometimes we just get lost. . . You know, just enjoying the small things. We have other goals we want to accomplish now so it was great to clinch the playoffs, it was great to clinch the division. Now our next step will be seeding and then trying to win the first round."
Dressed in a maroon suit jacket, Lowry watched the night unfold from his spot alongside the coaches. The point guard has been sidelined four of the last five games with a sore back, suffered when he fell and landed awkwardly in a win over Minnesota on March 18. He played part of one game in Detroit on Tuesday, but left in the second quarter with back spasms.
DeRozan played more as a distributor than scorer Friday. He shot just 1-for-10, but notched team highs in rebounds (10) and assists (seven). He missed on a breakaway dunk — his second missed dunk in recent weeks — and laughed on his way to the bench for a timeout.
"I felt like I was 20 again," he said. "It was just fun, little stuff like that we always try to do, try to get us going. If we can laugh about it, smile about it, I think that's a positive thing."
The original Raptors ownership group including John Bitove and Isiah Thomas was honoured as part of the Raptors' 20th anniversary celebrations.
"People gave us a chance and gave us an opportunity, and this is what we always thought it could be," said Thomas, the team's first general manager. "Once they got a taste of basketball here in this country, we knew that they would love it. It's been great."
The Lakers led for the majority of the first quarter, going up by 10 points on a hook shot by Sacre with 37 seconds left. Los Angeles led 24-17 going into the second.
The Raptors led 24-17 to end the first, but the Lakers battled back to take a 48-46 advantage at halftime. The Raptors held a lead through most of the quarter, and went into the fourth up 71-66.
The Raptors host the Houston Rockets on Monday.