TORONTO - The Toronto Raptors prefer to think of this as a beginning rather than an ending.
To be continued next season.
DeMar DeRozan poured in 24 points as the Raptors beat the playoff-bound Boston Celtics 114-90 in their season finale Wednesday, capping a roller-coaster campaign that coach Dwane Casey called "a tale of three different seasons."
"Three different teams, three different seasons," Casey said. "We are disappointed. I am disappointed. But if you disregard the 4-19, then we are knocking on the door of the playoffs."
Toronto staggered out to a horrible 4-19 start but won seven of its last eight games to finish 34-48, and the way the Raptors fought down the season stretch filled Casey with pride.
"These guys held onto the rope," the coach said. "That is all I preached after the 4-19 start, and that is all you can ask for as a coach. We had a lot of mountains to step over, we had a lot of hurdles, but guys held onto the rope and kept going. I am proud of the way they fought.
"As a coach, my goal is to get into the playoffs. I have been there, and I know what it tastes like. I want our guys to taste it too."
That will have to wait another year at least as the Raptors had been mathematically eliminated two weeks earlier, sending them into the off-season without a playoff appearance for the fifth consecutive year.
Rudy Gay, acquired in the mid-season trade that sent Jose Calderon to Detroit, addressed the crowd before the game thanking fans for their support, and summing up the team's optimism.
"Wait for next year," Gay told them.
Gay added 19 points in the finale, while Jonas Valanciunas had 18 and Alan Anderson finished with 16.
Jordan Crawford scored 16 points to top Boston (41-40). Paul Pierce had 11 first-half points, and took the second half off to rest up for the playoffs, in which the seventh-place Celtics take on the New York Knicks in the opening round. Kevin Garnett didn't play (sore left ankle).
The Raptors drained 12 three-pointers and led for most of the night, taking a 96-70 lead into the fourth quarter in front of 17,690 Air Canada Centre fans — about 2,000 shy of a sellout.
By the time Landry Fields went up for a dunk with two minutes left that put Toronto up by 27, both teams had their reserves on the floor and many fans had already left the building.
"All season, every game, we tried to figure where we were comfortable at, what would help us win games," DeRozan said. "Sucks that it took us this long to figure it out. It was just understanding what style of basketball we feel comfortable at. And now we know how to win."
Casey said there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
"Everyone has seen it," Casey said. "The growth of DeMar DeRozan with him shooting the three-point shot, the growth of Valanciunas and Rudy Gay integrating in. There are so many positives. I see so much growth."
The night was billed as "Fanapalooza," and cheerleaders chucked T-shirts up into the crowd and handed out everything from signed jerseys to gas vouchers — small reward for a loyal fan base that saw Toronto's season go off the rails virtually from opening night.
The Raptors stumbled with the second worst start in the NBA, digging themselves a hole so deep that even their 30-29 finish couldn't salvage the season.
"Disappointing I think for the overall aspect of trying to make the playoffs," Lowry said, summing up the season. "But this last month has been very encouraging, finishing off 7-1 is very encouraging going into the off-season."
Casey said there were several reasons the season went awry early. Newcomers Lowry and Valanciunas missed training camp, Valanciunas's calf injury lasting through the pre-season. Plus, the Raptors had a gruelling early schedule, including a killer west coast trip.
"Woulda coulda shoulda," Casey shrugged.
The Celtics, meanwhile, wore a strip of black on their jerseys in their first game since Monday's Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured more than 170. Both teams gathered at centre court, and the fans stood for a moment of silence.
The bright red Raptors sign that rings the inside of the Air Canada Centre was green, with the words "Tonight, we are all Boston fans."
Gay scored 12 points in the first quarter, his pull-up three-pointer with 3:19 left putting Toronto up by seven. Crawford threw up a 40-footer at the buzzer and the Celtics pulled to within 31-30 to end the frame.
The Raptors outscored Boston 28-19 in the second, going up by 14 with a minute left before taking a 59-49 lead into the dressing room at halftime
A three by John Lucas stretched the Raptors' lead to 27 points late in the third and they led by 26 with a quarter left.