Veteran Toronto Raptor Amir Johnson sat at his locker with a boyish smile after taking a congratulatory phone call from his grandmother. He hardly seemed to notice that both of his feet were submerged in a bucket of ice as he proclaimed to circling reporters: "We made it!"
As the final buzzer sounded to cement a dramatic Raptors 105-103 win over the Boston Celtics, and the Air Canada Centre crowd rollicked to "Celebration", it became official. Led by 30 points from DeMar DeRozan, 17 from Terrence Ross and a final tip-in bucket by Johnson with just seven seconds left, the Raptors officially clinched the club's first playoff berth since 2008.
"This team has worked so hard," said a delighted Johnson, about to make his first playoff appearance as a Raptor in his fifth season in Toronto. "This means a lot."
It punctuates the remarkable turnaround of a Toronto squad that opened the 2013 season with a 6-12 record and a fan base hoping they would just tank to improve the team's chancing of drafting Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins. They traded away star Rudy Gay for some lesser-knowns from the Sacramento Kings, who turned out to be pivotal contributors. And now the Raptors hold a playoff spot with 10 games left in the regular season. The team is also still in the running to win the Atlantic Division.
"Me and Amir been through tough seasons here and it was cool to see the reaction [the fans] gave us," said DeRozan. "It sums up everything we've been through the past four years. It was all worth it."
While many Raptors fans may have predicted that by late March they would be grumbling about a re-build, they are instead left to contemplate possible first-round playoff opponents. Current likely possibilities include the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets or Charlotte Bobcats.
But at moments Friday night, it appeared Raptors fans might have to wait a little longer to see that playoff berth officially seized as Toronto battled to pull convincingly ahead of the Celtics much of night and despite being up by 10 to begin the fourth quarter, it looked like they might give the game away inside the final two minutes.
The Raptors trailed the Celtics early on, not able to seize the lead until there were two minutes left in the first quarter. They held it through most of the second quarter and relinquished it briefly just as a frightening moment unfolded.
With two minutes remaining in the second quarter, the player Toronto can least afford to be without went down, sending a shiver down the spine of the Air Canada Centre crowd. Point guard Kyle Lowry seemed to stumble awkwardly and fall to the ground, clenching his ankle and writhing in pain before leaving the floor with the help of a trainer.That left backup Greivis Vasquez to run the floor. The Celtics grabbed hold of the lead briefly, before big baskets from Jonas Valanciunas and Tyler Hansbrough regained it and pumped life back into the quieted crowd, taking a 56-53 lead into the half.
Lowry was examined, had his ankle taped, and returned to start the second half. Amir Johnson sat much of the second half due to foul trouble, yet the Raptors outscored the Celts 29-20 in the third quarter and seemed to be in control.
But Toronto struggled to slam the door in the fourth quarter, letting Boston march right back and re-seize the lead as Jerryd Bayless and Kelly Olynyk began pouring in shots. Tied inside the final minute with the bellowing, electric crowd demanding the win, the two most long-standing Raptors, DeRozan then Johnson, made big baskets to secure the narrow win.
Third-year Raptors coach Dwane Casey called it gratifying, but spent more time talking about the task of getting his team prepared for the physical "meat-grinding" playoffs.
"But we're not satisfied, we still have to get better," said Casey, who will be making his first NBA playoff appearance as a head coach. "This franchise is built for a championship environment and that's the culture I wanted to bring from Dallas when we won the championship. It sounds like I'm tooting my own horn, but I know what it takes to win in this league. Defence wins, and we're building that culture here."
The Raptors improved to 41-31 with the victory, which insures they will finish with a .500 regular season record for the sixth time in franchise history, something they had not done since the 2007-08 season.
The last time Toronto appeared in the NBA Playoffs, the Orlando Magic bounced the 2008 Chris Bosh led squad 4-1 in the first round.
This current Raptors team isn't content just to get to the post-season – it aims to win the Atlantic Division title (something they haven't done since 2007) and lock up the third spot in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors are in a close battle with Brooklyn Nets for the division title and the top-four playoff seed that goes with it.
Toronto has 10 regular season games left to play, five of them at home, before the NBA playoffs begin on April 19.