TORONTO (CP) – A night that began with the unfurling of their Atlantic Division banner ended with the Toronto Raptors setting a franchise record for victories.
But they barely paused to soak up the good feelings Wednesday after beating the lowly Milwaukee Bucks 110-100 to notch win No. 48.
“We’ve got a bigger goal,” said Kyle Lowry.
Greivis Vasquez – filling in for all-star DeMar DeRozan, who was given the night off to rest up for the post-season – scored 25 points to top the playoff-bound Raptors (48-33). Lowry added 24 points, Jonas Valanciunas had 14 points and 13 rebounds, Tyler Hansbrough scored 12 points and grabbed 11 boards, while Amir Johnson finished with 10 points.
“Franchise record, (but) we’re just going to keep pushing and see what’s next for us,” Johnson said. “We’re always looking for the next thing, just have to keep moving.”
Toronto had won 47 games twice before – in 2000-’01 and 2006-’07.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a team that went from 48 losses last season to now 48 wins with one game to go – they wrap up the regular-season Wednesday at New York.
“All it takes is the right chemistry, the right group of guys, and you can do whatever it takes,” DeRozan said. “You don’t need no big-name players, you don’t need this, that. . . what people supposedly say you need.
“I think we’re proof of that, and we continue to keep growing and keep learning and keep building and it’s on to the next step.”
The Raptors stumbled out to a 6-12 season start. The about-face came after the blockbuster seven-player trade in December that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes.
“I’m glad we made the trade for those guys, they came in and they’ve done an unbelievable job and the coaching staff has done an unbelievable job also,” Lowry said.
The Raptors never trailed Monday, and were up by as much as 22 points in the second quarter. They took an 84-69 advantage into the fourth against a Bucks team that is guaranteed to finish with the worst record in the NBA this season.
But the Bucks showed some fight in the fourth, pulling to within seven points on an alley-oop dunk by Jeff Adrien with 7:27 to play. That was as close as the Bucks would come as Lowry’s six points were part of a 12-5 Raptors run that put them ahead by 14 with three minutes to play.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey wasn’t thrilled with his team’s performance.
“I know it’s ringing hollow, but we still have to continue to work to get better,” Casey said. “We’re not where we need to be, defensively, offensively, for the playoffs. We’re not a veteran team who can take three or four games off, and expect to come back and keep that rhythm.”
Ramon Sessions scored 21 points to top the Bucks (15-66) in their 14th straight loss on the road. Adrien added 19 points.
The Raptors remained tied for third in the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls, who beat Orlando 108-95 on Monday, so the seeding won’t be determined until the final game Wednesday. The Raptors could play either Washington, Brooklyn or Charlotte in the opening round of the playoffs, beginning Saturday or Sunday.
The Raptors opened the festive night by unfurling their second Atlantic Division banner – clinched last Friday – from the Air Canada Centre rafters.
“It was cool, man. It was really cool,” Lowry said. “But I’ll think about it after the season, for me personally. I’m sure the guys will look back and reflect after the season is over.”
DeRozan addressed the crowd of 18,821, saying “We want to thank you guys for the support throughout the whole season, and we want you guys to help us unfurl the banner as division champs.”
DeRozan counted down “3-2-1,” as the banner dropped to fireworks and cheers from the crowd.
“We fed off our fans, and we got to have the most loyal fans in the league,” DeRozan said. “I’ve been here through the struggles and the tough times, and our fans still were right there with us along this journey. It felt good to share it with them because they played a major part in it as well.”
Toronto had only won the division title once before – in 2006-07, which was also the last time they made the playoffs, losing in the first round to New Jersey.
Casey feared the banner celebration might work in the Bucks’ favour.
“I think it’s great for the fans,” Casey said. “(But) if you have anything in your trunks, you’re probably going to get upset and come out swinging if you see the other team hanging a banner on you.”
Casey needn’t have worried. The Raptors sprinted out of the gate, assembling an 11-point lead with three minutes to go in the first quarter on a three by Vasquez. They led 32-19 heading into the second.
The Raptors continued to pull away in the second, a Nando De Colo three-pointer giving the home team a 22-point lead about seven minutes before halftime. But the Bucks closed the quarter with a 15-6 run and Toronto led 59-46 at the break.
The Raptors went back up by 20 late in the third quarter on a three by Lowry, and led 84-69 with a quarter left to play.
NOTES: The Raptors will host a “Party in the Square” in Maple Leaf Square for playoff games like the Toronto Maple Leafs did for their playoff series last season against Boston. … New Leafs president Brendan Shanahan sat courtside with Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. … The Raptors had lost 11 straight to the Bucks before this season. … Milwaukee’s last road win was Feb. 24 at Philadelphia.