The post-game mood was a little strange on Friday night at Air Canada Centre.
On one hand, the Raptors had just lost to the New York Knicks 108-100. Carmelo Anthony scored 30 points and Amar’e Stoudemire scored a season-high 24 points to go with 11 rebounds. On the other hand, thanks to a Brooklyn Nets loss against the Atlanta Hawks (that happened while Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was conducting his post-game press conference), Toronto clinched a division title.
With an “Atlantic is Ours” t-shirt slung over each player’s chair in the losing locker room, the vibe alternated between happy with the accomplishment and annoyed over the night’s result. While the Raptors were unable to slow Stoudemire or Anthony and had their own offense fall apart in the fourth quarter, they were able to cross of the next goal on their to-do list. For the second time in 19 seasons, the Raptors are the class of the Atlantic.
“It sucks that we lost the game, especially with us trying to hold the third spot,” DeMar DeRozan said. “But it feels great to win the division. I don’t think anybody would have picked us to win it. That’s definitely a great accomplishment.”
Sophomore Terrence Ross wasted no time slipping on the shirt, smiling to himself in his locker as he slid his feet into a pair of unworn Jordans fresh out of the box.
“It feels good [to put this on],” Ross said. “We worked so hard for it. It feels right. It’s a great feeling knowing we went out and proved everybody wrong.”
From the early days of training camp when the topic of tanking was mentioned daily, to the struggles prior to the trade in December that brought Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons to Toronto in exchange for Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy, the players within the locker room banded together.
While everyone on the outside was plotting how to make the roster better for the future, those on the roster was plotting how to make the postseason.
“All we have is each other so we’ve got to go out there each day and ball out for each other,” Ross said. “Play like it’s our last game.”
Casey didn’t want to focus too much on the division title, but did acknowledge how far his squad has come since the season opened in October.
“It’s great for the fans,” Casey said. “I’m excited for the fans. This franchise has had a lot of ups and downs. It’s funny how the expectations change. We still have some growing to do. We have a great foundation from where we are. Now we just want to be ready to go into the playoffs with some momentum.”
Toronto has three games left in the regular season before their first postseason appearance in five years. Although the Atlantic division has been clinched, the team is still battling the Chicago Bulls for the third spot in the Eastern Conference. While media members were conducting interviews with Raptors players Friday night, various relevant scores were being passed across the room as players wanted to keep up with the standings as they were happening.
“It’s definitely fun from a competitor standpoint because this is the game we love,” DeRozan said. “You love to see what everybody is doing around the league. You’ve got a lot of teams, in both conferences, fighting for spots. It makes it that much more interesting and you’ve got to play down to the last game.”
After five years in Toronto, both DeRozan and Amir Johnson were reflective on the accomplishment and what it meant for the city and its fans.
“I’ve been here for five years,” Johnson said. “To make the improvement and to come out as division champs is a proud, proud moment. We have a lot more to go. We’re still working hard and we’ve got to keep going.”