It's a well known fact that Raptors fans have seen a mostly tortured franchise history through two decades of existence. There's been limited success at times, but that semblance of potential success has often been stolen, and usually at the last second in heartbreaking fashion.
So when they went up 26 in the third quarter of their crucial Game 5 swing game against the Nets on Wednesday night, staring at a third postseason win for only the second time in franchise history, a surreal feeling swept over the Air Canada Centre.
Of course, even up 26 in the third quarter, those fans knew in the back of their minds that there was still plenty of time for drama, just as they knew it when Kevin Durant and the Thunder were here in March.
As the Nets cut into the lead, trimming the deficit to 15, then 10, then six and then three, before finally tying it on a Joe Johnson three-pointer with 3:18 to go, Raptors fans who had seen this unfold too many times before entered into a delirious "I guess we knew this was coming" state - more disappointingly accepting of reality than shocked. This Raptors team was supposed to be different, but now they were going to go down in pathetic fashion like so many Raptors teams before them.
In our minds, the worst case scenarios played out. Who was going to hit the crushing dagger this time? "It's going to be Alan Anderson, isn't it? Is that Paul Pierce moving on the bench? Just save us the heartbreak and end this now."
Even after the Raptors retook the lead in the final minutes and essentially entered into a free throw shooting contest to save the game in the final seconds, any fan will tell you that they were convinced Andray Blatche's missed free throw at the end of the game would turn into an offensive rebound and a game-winning Brooklyn three at the buzzer.
Heck, even when Blatche threw that subsequent offensive rebound into the backcourt for a violation, there had to be at least a few Raptors fans out there who thought surely Jonas Valanciunas would be called for the game-losing goaltending violation on Deron Williams' Hail Mary heave. Now that would have been the most Raptors ending ever, they'll tell you.
But something strange happened immediately after the Nets completed their rally to tie the game and before those Blatche free throws. Instead of punctuating their collapse with a heartbreaking loss, the Raptors responded. Most notably, Kyle Lowry put the team and the 20,393 in attendance on his back, as he has so many times before this season, burying a clutch, cold blooded three and putting Deron Williams in the spin cycle to complete a heroic 36-point, six-assist night. Greivis Vasquez hit another big three of his own and DeMar DeRozan was unflappable at the free throw line, helping Toronto hold on for the nail-biting 115-113 win.
Suddenly the script had been rewritten and flipped, and the story was not of another epic Raptors collapse for the ages, but rather of response and resolve, of Lowry's season saving play - again - of the franchise's first series lead in 13 years and the chance to close out the wily Nets on Friday in front of a tepid Brooklyn crowd.
There is still work left to be done, of course, but for now at least it turns out these Raptors are different, and Lowry remains the biggest reason why.
“When we need an answer, call Kyle. Kyle’ll figure it out," Chuck Hayes said after the Game 5 victory.
The Raptors were on the verge of writing their most tragic chapter yet in an already tortured history. Kyle Lowry decided to write a chapter of his own, instead.
Toronto 3, Brooklyn 2. And the exhilarating 2014 NBA playoffs continue.
Feature photo courtesy of John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports