TORONTO • It has been a painful process at times for the Toronto Raptors, but they finally took the next step.
Led by 35 points from Kyle Lowry and 28 from DeMar DeRozan, they dominated the Miami Heat 116-89 on Sunday in the seventh and deciding game of their National Basketball Association (NBA) Eastern Conference semi-final series.
The victory puts the Raptors in the Eastern Conference final for the first time in franchise history against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The series opens today in Cleveland.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey sees it as "another step for us... but we're not there yet."
"For this programme from where we started to where we are now, it's very important. I think we've done everything we set out to do, but again, we're not done yet."
The ultimate goal is an NBA championship. "I'm not saying we can do that," he said. "But I think this group is hungry and never say never. I know one thing, our guys will compete."
The Raptors will be underdogs against the Cavaliers, who finished first in the Eastern Conference with Toronto finishing second.
"We have a tough task," Lowry said. "But then it's still basketball. It's always a challenge to play against those guys.
"LeBron (James) is one of the best players in the league, Kyrie (Irving) is always a tough match-up, Kevin Love is always a tough match-up. But we're going to go out there and play our game, try and do our job and see what happens."
Toronto will start against Cleveland with the odds stacked against them, having battled through two marathon seven-game series to reach the conference finals.
Cleveland head into the first game well rested after back-to-back 4-0 sweeps in the previous rounds.
On Sunday, Lowry and DeRozan stole the show as Toronto powered their way to a convincing victory in front of a raucous home crowd.
The Raptors led most of the way. They took a 16-point lead during the third quarter and were up by eight entering the fourth quarter and soon had the lead at 20.
Lowry's three-pointer with 3min 24sec left made the lead 25 points.
"We tip our hats to the Toronto organisation," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
"You have to respect an organisation that has gone through some pain in the play-offs and then to be able to overcome that.
"It was a heck of a series to be involved with. It's unfortunate that people thought that this was maybe not the most elegant series but it was one of the more competitive ones."
Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 16 points each. Justise Winslow added 14 points, Joe Johnson had 13, Luol Deng scored 12 and Josh McRoberts had 10.
"They were the better team for the majority of the game," Wade said. "With what we had we fought tooth and nail to get to that goal of the Eastern Conference final and fell one game short.
"We exhausted all possibilities. We did everything we possibly could to get there."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE