TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson exited the Toronto Raptors locker room with their heads held high. In the hallway, they passed Kyle Lowry, who was standing with DeRozan's daughter in his arms. This moment -- walking together to the interview podium following the Raptors' first playoff win since 2008 -- was just the latest in a series of significant steps.
The two arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2009. DeRozan was a 19-year-old project swingman out of USC. Johnson was 22, an unproven per-minute monster coming off a four-year apprenticeship under the Pistons' veteran big men. Over the years, the Los Angeles natives planted roots here. They raved about the city to anyone who would listen. Every April, they'd talk about the disappointment of missing the playoffs. Every October, they'd say they believed that outcome would change. Six months ago, if people didn't take their stated goals seriously, that came with the territory. The doubt only made them push harder.
"We had three, four previous seasons before then where they were like, ‘They said the same thing then and look what happened, look what the turnout was,'" DeRozan said. "We understand how hard we work in the offseason, especially myself and the frustration that I went through with the years of losing."
The Raptors have had a storybook season since December, and DeRozan and Johnson are right where they want to be. They beat the Brooklyn Nets 100-95 in Game 2 at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, rebounding from what both separately referred to as first-game jitters. In Saturday's Game 1 loss, DeRozan shot 3-for-13, unable to find his rhythm against a defense designed to take him out of his comfort zone. Johnson didn't make much of an impact either, finishing with two points and three rebounds while watching the final 15 minutes of the 94-87 loss from the bench.
Toronto needed the second game to be different, lest its Atlantic Division title and franchise-record 48 wins lose a lot of their luster. The pair's production was paramount, and they knew it.
"We weren't going down 0-2," Johnson said. "We were the desperate team. We had to play desperate. There was no way we were going to lose that game. It was a must-win for us."
DeRozan had 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting at the moment when he caught the ball on the right wing early in the fourth quarter. Brooklyn's Andrei Kirilenko had fallen to the floor and DeRozan saw an opportunity to slash. He took one powerful dribble, then gathered as he stepped foot in the paint. The Nets' Mason Plumlee tried to step around Kirilenko, but he had no chance. DeRozan had already elevated and he hammered home a violent, left-handed dunk that shook the arena.
He had 20 points when he picked up his fifth foul on a charge with more than seven minutes to play. DeRozan begged to stay in the game, but was sent to the sideline. The Raptors called a timeout a little later and he stayed on the bench rather than joining the huddle. DeRozan was upset with the situation, but he was not sulking. He came back in with less than three minutes left and put the team on his back. Back-to-back DeRozan jumpers broke an 85-85 tie, and then he hit six clutch free throws to put the game away. He scored 30 points and shot 12-for-14 from the free throw line.
DeRozan had done things like this all season, but never had they mattered so much.
"It's everything you dream about," DeRozan said. "When you become a professional athlete, to be at that highest level and have the trust from your coaching staff and your teammates to have the ball in your hand and win a game for them."
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Johnson's efforts won't get him the same sort of headlines as DeRozan, but that's nothing new and not a concern. His teammates appreciate the difference it makes when he sets a hard screen. While his 10.4 points-per-game average is pedestrian, some metrics scream superstar.
A two-handed dunk off an inbounds play at the end of the game was Johnson's most memorable play, but Toronto wouldn't have been in that position without all he quietly did earlier. Johnson spent part of his evening chasing Paul Pierce around on the perimeter and part of it banging inside. Johnson ended up with 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting, plus nine boards and two blocks.
As always with him, though, it wasn't only the numbers. He'd pledged beforehand to beat his man down the floor and provide a lift. That's just part of his job description.
"He means a lot, man," Raptors point guard Greivis Vasquez said. "He's our energy guy. He's the unknown factor of this team. We need him. I believe he is kind of like the heart of the team."
Johnson's locker is almost always in disorder. When he's not racing around on the court, he's the slowest-moving guy on the squad. He's as easygoing a professional athlete as you could meet, and in Toronto, you actually can. Johnson's always popping up around town, whether it's a hockey game or a zombie walk.
"People really love him in this city, the fans," Vasquez said. "He's got a really special place in my heart. Sitting right next to him every day, with all his messy shoes and all that stuff. You gotta love him."
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Both Johnson and DeRozan are new fathers, maturing as men in Toronto. This is DeRozan's fifth year and it's been by far his most important. All along, he wanted to be in the playoffs and he wanted to be an All-Star. Those missions have been accomplished.
"You just watch a young man grow up," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. "You come here and he's wet behind the ears, trying to make it, and then all at once you see the hard work he put in, you see the dedication he has to the team, to the city, to his family, to his craft. To see it come to fruition, to be an All-Star, is very gratifying.
"I can tell him until the cows come home, ‘Keep working, keep working, keep working,'" Casey continued. "But if you don't sooner or later see results, you'll start going the other way. But he kept his nose to the grind, he kept improving every year as far as an area of his game, and it paid off this year."
DeRozan and Johnson will never forget seeing opponents arrive at the ACC expecting an automatic win. That's why this Nets series is about more than wins and losses. For the only players on the roster two seasons ago, it's about showing the league they're not the same old Toronto Raptors. This is a tough team with great chemistry and a bright future. They could have played their way to podiums elsewhere, but it would not have been the same.
"Me and DeMar, we've been through all the ups and downs of this team," Johnson said. "We've been through 80-something players and different coaches. This year, we broke so many records. I feel like we have a duty to prove that we are a great team. It just means a lot, to be here for five years and finally get to this stage."