LOS ANGELES • The Toronto Raptors still have their doubters, with retired Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce dismissing them as a "great regular-season team but not a contender" in December.
But their closest Eastern Conference rivals Boston would have taken notice of their 121-119 gritty overtime win at the Detroit Pistons that made Toronto the first team to clinch a spot in the National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs.
DeMar DeRozan exploded for 42 points, adding six assists and four rebounds to haul the Raptors (47-17) back from the brink of what would have been an upset loss on Wednesday.
The win tightened Toronto's grip on first place in the East but they had to overcome the early ejection of Serge Ibaka and hold their nerve after a late fightback took the game into overtime. Point guard Kyle Lowry was content to supply the ammunition, contributing 15 assists as well as 15 points.
Toronto dropped the hammer with 1.1 seconds left in overtime following Fred Van Vleet's jumper, capping a roller-coaster game for the away team, who were down by as many as 17 points in the second quarter.
"We're at a point now where we understand that as long as there's time on that clock, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win," DeRozan said.
"Even if things aren't going our way offensively, we play extremely hard and some ways, something will turn up for us."
The Cleveland Cavaliers (38-26) remain third in the East after a 113-108 win over the Denver Nuggets in Colorado with LeBron James' 39-point showing providing the spark for the Cavs.
In Milwaukee, NBA Most Valuable Player front runner James Harden scored 26 points as the Houston Rockets (51-13) rolled to a 17th straight win with a 110-99 win over the Bucks. They are now six games from setting a new franchise winning record.
But Harden said their streak was secondary with their sights set squarely on performing in each game.
"We're not worried about wins and losses right now. We're worried about playing the right way at both ends of the court," he added.
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