TORONTO — When the Toronto Raptors gathered in a timeout huddle with just under six minutes to play Tuesday night, DeMar DeRozan sat forlorn and frustrated at the end of the bench.
He gazed at the floor, and fought to regain his composure.
It could have spelled disaster. Instead, DeRozan — calm restored — grabbed the game by the throat in the final three minutes to lead Toronto to a 100-95 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 of their playoff series Tuesday.
“It’s just my competitive spirit,” DeRozan explained. “Just calmed myself down. I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t be out there with my team at that critical moment. It was just me keeping myself together, not being so frustrated, just staying focused.”
The Raptors top scorer had just picked up his fifth foul and Dwane Casey had taken him out of the game, despite DeRozan pleading with his coach to keep him in.
DeRozan scored 10 of his 30 points in the game’s final three minutes, hitting two big buckets right after he returned to the game, his second a fadeaway jumper from 18 feet that had him flexing his chest and growling in celebration.
The first-game jitters that haunted him in Game 1? Gone.
Winning the game for his team down the stretch was “everything you dream about.”
“Especially when you become a professional athlete at the highest level, and have that trust from your coaching staff and your teammates to have the ball in your hands, and win the game for them,” the 24-year-old DeRozan said. “That’s big, and I appreciate all 14 guys in that locker-room and the coaching staff to have that trust in me to take those shots in the fourth quarter.”
The best-of-seven Eastern Conference series is tied at one game apiece and heads to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.
Amir Johnson had 16 points and nine rebounds, Jonas Valanciunas had 15 points and 14 boards for his second double-double of the series, while Kyle Lowry had 14 points, nine boards and six assists. Patrick Patterson added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Atlantic Division champions.
Joe Johnson topped the Nets with 18 points, while Deron Williams had 15, Mirza Teletovic added 14, and Kevin Garnett finished with 13.
Toronto outrebounded Brooklyn 52-30.
Casey had predicted a completely different group of players — especially DeRozan — would show up for Game 2 after the majority of them looked overwhelmed by the bright lights of the playoffs in Game 1.
“The game is about adjustments,” DeRozan said. “I’m a student of the game. I went back and watched the whole game (Saturday’s loss) two or three times, to understand where I could get my shots, opportunities, where I could score and get easy buckets.”
The Raptors led by as much as 11 in the first half but the Nets got hot in the third quarter and took a 66-64 advantage into the fourth.
DeRozan poured in seven points early in the fourth — including a massive left-handed dunk that had capacity crowd of 20,382 fans at the Air Canada Centre — that included Mayor Rob Ford, Drake and multimillionaire NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein — roaring.
DeRozan’s 17 fourth-quarter points, alone, were two points better than his entire output in Saturday’s 94-87 Game 1 loss. The Raptors outscored the Nets 36-29 in the final 12 minutes.
The Raptors went up by five with 1:10 to play after Lowry drained a shot then stole the ball, leading to a Patterson free throw. Lowry raised his hands to the crowd like a conductor directs an orchestra, encouraging the fans to cheer louder.
“Earlier in the year we wanted to be the Freddy Krueger of the NBA. Not give up, not give in,” Casey said. “I think our guys have done that. We won against a very veteran team like Brooklyn, and that is very difficult to do because they seem to find a way to challenge you and keep you on your toes.”
Paul Pierce, who scorched the Raptors down the stretch in Game 1, missed on a three-point attempt that would have tied the game with about 30 seconds to play.
“Yeah, I got some looks,” Pierce said. “Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t. I think tonight it really wasn’t about the offence again, we put ourselves in that position. We have to be better in the fourth quarter defensively.
“When you go on the road and you are trying to steal two on the other team’s home court, you have to be better in the fourth quarter defensively.”
DeRozan drained two free throws with 20.6 seconds left to seal the victory for Toronto. Johnson then took flight for a massive dunk to the delight of the delirious fans — the perfect punctuation mark on a solid game by the entire Raptors team.
“Just for me and DeMar, we’ve been through the ups and downs of this team,” Johnson said. “This year we broke so many records, and we finally made it to this level. . . it just means a lot to be here for five years and to finally get to this stage.
“We were here when people thought you could just come to Toronto and get a win,” added DeRozan, seated beside Johnson at the post-game press conference. “We’ve been through all that, frustrating seasons.
“And we want everybody to know when you play against the Toronto Raptors you’re going to have to fight, you’re going to have to bring your game, and that’s the passion every single guy on this team has.”
If there was one glaring negative, it was turnovers — again. The Raptors coughed up 17 points on 21 turnovers. Saturday, they gave up 17 points on 19 turnovers and vowed to clean up the giveaways.
Now the series heads to the unfriendly confines of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — likely made more unfriendly by the F-bomb Raptors GM Masai Ujiri dropped in relation to Brooklyn when addressing fans Saturday.
“I think we always play well on the road in hostile environments. I think we proved it this year,” DeRozan said. “It’s really no pressure when we play on the road. It’s just us, we don’t pay attention to the crowd, the odds being stacked against us, we understand everything’s on us and that’s how we play.”
The players at least didn’t have to put up with the distraction of Saturday’s shot-clock fiasco. The power sources to the clocks were replaced after they were fried in the third quarter of Game 1, leaving announcer Herbie Kuhn to count down the 24 seconds on each possession.
As in Game 1, hundreds of fans jammed Maple Leaf Square outside the ACC to watch the game on the giant screen.
Valanciunas led the way with eight points in the first quarter punctuated by a circus play that led to a Ross basket — Valanciunas took a shot and missed while falling down, and grabbed his own rebound while still on his backside, chucking a pass from the seated position. The play was part of a 15-3 run that put the Raptors up by five with about three minutes left in the quarter. Toronto took a 21-19 lead into the second.
The Raptors opened the second with a 14-7 run to take an 11-point lead but the Nets fought back to cut Toronto’s lead to 45-39 heading into the dressing room at halftime.
Johnson ran amok for 12 points in the third, and the Nets outscored the Raptors 27-19 in the quarter to lead by two points with a quarter left to play.