Two games from the end of their NBA season, the Toronto Raptors prefer to see themselves as a work in progress, with every game being a chance to improve for next season.
DeMar DeRozan poured in 36 points — one point shy of his career high — and Rudy Gay added 26 points and 10 rebounds and the Raptors beat Brooklyn 93-87 on Sunday, playing spoiler in the Nets' fight for a favourable post-season position.
"Obviously it means nothing for the standings or our record next year. It's just the mentality that we're trying to start having — not giving up, working hard," Gay said. "This is a jumpstart for next year."
Amir Johnson added 10 points and nine boards for the Raptors (32-48), who have won five of their last six games.
Deron Williams led the Nets (47-33) with 30 points, Brook Lopez finished with 16 and Andray Blatche added 15. Former Raptor Reggie Evans had 16 rebounds to go with zero points, and picked up a technical for slapping the ball out of Gay's hands after the whistle.
The Nets, who will play in the post-season for the first time since 2007, are in the hunt for the third seed in the Eastern Conference — but the Raptors clearly weren't interested in doing them any favours.
Toronto, which will miss the post-season for the fifth consecutive season, led by double digits for most of the afternoon, and thanks largely to the cohesion of DeRozan and Gay, were up by as much as 21 points before taking a 70-59 advantage into the fourth quarter.
"They're learning each other," Casey said of DeRozan and Gay. "I know I get killed for that word (learning), but it's a process. Those guys, you can't just throw two guys out there and say 'run this, run that.' The guys have to get a rhythm, a comfort level, knowing where they want the ball, how they want the ball."
DeRozan and Gay were teamed up in Toronto in a mid-season trade, but critics wondered how the two would co-exist. There was certainly enough scoring to go around Sunday. DeRozan shot 12-for-22 and went 3-for-4 from three-point range, while Gay was 10-for-19 from the field and connected on three of six three-point attempts.
"We're definitely going to be something to reckon with," DeRozan said on his partnership with Gay. "I don't see any team being able to stop us, especially if we're playing like we played tonight."
The Nets, who arrived in Toronto on a four-game winning streak, poured it on in the fourth and a pair of free throws by Williams and one by Blatche pulled Brooklyn to within three points with 4:42 to play. Gay had a steal and four points within 30 seconds and the Raptors were back up by eight.
A three by Joe Johnson cut Toronto's lead to four with 23 seconds left, but two free throws by DeRozan sealed Toronto's victory.
"I really think (DeRozan) went from good, promising young player to a very solid guard," said Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo.
The Raptors shot 44 per cent on the night and outrebounded the Nets 48-38.
"They're a team that's definitely capable of getting hot and they were hot tonight," Joe Johnson said of Toronto. "It's different when you're playing and you know your season is going to be over in a few days. You go out there and just play loose, have fun, freelancing. They were knocking down shots from every which way. Give them credit. They were pretty hot tonight."
Terrence Ross returned after missing a game with an ankle injury but didn't play. Jonas Valanciunas didn't dress for the second straight game (sore neck).
DeRozan had 11 first-quarter points including a driving reverse layup that gave the Raptors an early 12-point lead. It was shortlived as a Nets run cut the difference to a point, before Gay drained a three-pointer from four feet beyond the arc at the buzzer to put Toronto up 24-20 to end the first.
The Raptors held the Nets to 12 points and 27 per cent shooting in the second quarter, and stretched their lead to 21 points before taking a 51-32 advantage into half-time.
Williams drained three wide-open threes in the final 3:28 of the third — nine of his 15 points in the quarter — and the Nets pulled to within 11 with one quarter left.