SPORTS

Toronto Raptors beat Hornets to cap franchise-best 49-win regular-season

04/15/2015 09:19 EDT | Updated 06/27/2015 11:59 EDT
TORONTO - The Air Canada Centre crowd stood and cheered as the clock ticked down on the Toronto Raptors' best regular season in franchise history Wednesday night.

Then the Raptors departed the court to turn their sights on what they've been waiting for for months — another shot at the NBA playoffs, and a familiar foe in Paul Pierce.

Kyle Lowry scored 26 points to lead the Raptors in a 92-87 victory over the Charlotte Hornets that gave the Raptors a franchise-best 49 victories on the season, one more than last year.

"Feels good. This is what we play for," Lowry said. "Now it gets a little bit more serious."

The Raptors, who finished fourth in the East, open a playoff round that comes with some pre-packaged drama, thanks to Pierce. In last year's post-season series with Brooklyn, Pierce — then with the Nets — blocked Lowry's final shot of Game 7 to clinch the series for the Nets.

Earlier this week, the Wizards forward told ESPN.com he wasn't worried about the Raptors because they didn't have the "it" factor.

"Paul Pierce has always got to say something," DeMar DeRozan scoffed. "He said something last year, he's always got to say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he says.

"He'd just better hope Chicago or whatevers got to happen so he won't see what 'it' is."

DeRozan was speaking before the Raptors learned their playoff opponent. Chicago's victory over Atlanta later Wednesday night meant Toronto plays Washington. Had Atlanta won, Toronto would have faced Milwaukee.

Lowry rolled his eyes when asked if Toronto has the "it" factor.

"Yes, we do," he said.

With a post-season of experience under their belts, DeRozan said they'll be ready when the ball is tossed up on the playoffs on Saturday.

"It's just experience, playing in the atmosphere of intensity, every single possession, every single game matters," said DeRozan, who had 16 points in the win. "You've got to be on your A game, can't let nothing fly. . . just going in there this time knowing what to expect."

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said his young squad was "shell-shocked" in its playoff opener last season. Experience, he said, means plenty.

"They've been there," he said. "They won't be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed when the crowd comes out and the intensity level goes up 10 decibles."

Jonas Valanciunas added 18 points in the regular-season finale, while Terrence Ross added 13, in a game that saw Toronto firing on all cylinders.

DeRozan took the court before the game to address the sellout Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,800, saying: "We want to thank y'all for being the best fans in the NBA. Enjoy the game and enjoy the playoffs."

Then they went out and shot a sizzling 49 per cent, and when James Johnson took flight for a huge putback jam with just under five minutes to play, it put the Raptors up by 16 points.

Lowry looked in playoff form in his fourth game back after missing nine of 10 with a back injury, shooting 8-for-15 — 6-for-9 from three-point range — and adding seven assists.

"I feel great," Lowry said. "Good game for me to go into the playoffs off of."

The victory capped a regular season that saw the Raptors race out to a spectacular start, leading the East for several weeks, putting the playoffs in their sights early. The 49 victories were slightly less than heady, early predictions, but DeRozan, the franchise's longest-serving player, said it was still a huge accomplishment.

"It means everything to me, me personally," DeRozan said. "I've been here through it all. I grew here, so everything we do means a lot to me, because I feel like I played a big role in doing that."

The Raptors led almost from the opening tip-off, and a driving hook shot from Ross with 30 seconds to go in the first put them up 25-20 heading into the second.

Lowry poured in 13 points in the second, and DeRozan tossed up a turnaround fadeaway jumper at the buzzer that circled the rim dramatically before dropping through. DeRozan broke into a celebratory gallop and the Raptors took a 55-44 lead into the halftime dressing room.

Valanciunas took over in the third, scoring 10 points as the Raptors stretched their lead to 13 points. They went into the fourth up 78-67.

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