January 20, 2018

The Toronto Raptors spent three quarters building a lead and then sweated a scary seven and a half minutes watching the Indiana Pacers whack away at it. Ultimately, though, they survived with an 89-84 win that puts them in the second round for just the second time in franchise history.

“That locker room is full of fighters,” Toronto coach Dwayne Casey said. “I’m happy for those young men in there.”

“We were just going to leave it all out there, whatever we had,” Toronto star DeMar DeRozan said. “From the beginning to the end, that’s how all the guys played tonight.”

Toronto bucked a lot of history to win this one. They had never won a Game 7 (now 1-2), and lost five straight first-round series, including two with this core group.

But history wasn’t the only obstacle: the Pacers were also very good in the fourth.

After Toronto took an 83-67 lead with 7:31 left, Indiana took a timeout and came out a very different team. Five difference Pacers participated in a 15-2 run that sliced the Toronto lead. They score five baskets at the rim, and capped it with an in-your-grill three by Monta Ellis.

The Raptors’ Kyle Lowry scored that lone bucket in the stretch, as well as the layup that ended the run and restored a five-point lead, 87-82. But a Paul George free throw trip and another Indiana stop made it a one-possession game in the final minute, Pacers ball.

George drove down the right side and drew help from Ian Mahinmi’s man. The Frenchman smartly went toward the front of the rim, but DeRozan took notice, and bodied Mahinmi up to deny him the alley-oop. The Raptor guard got possession of the loose ball and sunk two free throws that provided the game’s final margin.

George pointed to that as a call the referees “blew” down the stretch. “I thought the Ian foul at the end was a blatant foul… I’ve been in this situation a couple of times where the game has been kind of lopsided and the home team is given an advantage.”

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There was certainly contact before the ball arrived, although it could be argued that the level of contact was consistent with what was being allowed throughout the game, especially off the ball. Either way, it was close. And either way, Indiana still would have found themselves down and relying on the foul game.

DeRozan’s 2-for-2 trip capped a 30 point night to lead the Raptors, but even his night was more complicated than that sentence makes it sound. He went 10-for-32 from the field, and hit prolonged droughts where little worked. But he got enough in two flurries: a 13-point first quarter and an 11-point spurt as part of another baker’s dozen in the third.

“He was going to empty the clip. That’s what he did tonight,” Lowry said of his backcourt partner. “I don’t care if he shot 40 times, he emptied the clip and we won. That’s all that matters.”

In his first quarter stint, DeRozan just played well within the offense. He drove all the way to the lane to score the game’s first bucket, and later he’d use a shot fake to earn the first two of nine free throw attempts. He scored twice on catch-and-shoots coming around a curl, and he hit a three when Toronto’s side-to-side movement sent defenders scrambling.

Most of his attempts for the rest of the night were much more forced. But that hardly mattered in the third quarter, when he scored 11 straight Raptor points on some fairly unlikely shots. He flipped a ball up after getting contact on the break. He stopped, spun, faded and hit from 18 out. When a defender forced him to the outside on a drive, he pirouetted to the middle and scored a layup. He was tremendous during that stretch, which ended with the Raps up 15.

As good as DeRozan was in spots, Toronto doesn’t win this game without Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, and Patrick Patterson. Lowry had another off-shooting night (5-for-14), and that trio was involved in most of what worked for Toronto for three quarters.

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CoJo scored eight, but also finished with four assists. He set up back-to-back Powell threes from the corner, getting the rookie going as 10 of his 13 game in the quarter. And in the third quarter, Patterson caught and shot three times from deep, changing the defensive coverage and setting the table for DeRozan’s explosion in the quarter. Patterson finished with 11.

But the offense got severely tripped up in the final seven minutes of the game, and it might have been a question of lineups as much as anything. Casey recently discovered a predilection for small lineups that he never had during the regular season. No lineup featuring four smalls played more than a total of 36 minutes over the course of 82 games, Casey has gotten some energy in this series from lineups with Jonas Valanciunas or Bismack Biyombo in the middle, surrounded by four guards/wings.

He did that tonight, and the groups just couldn’t score. One such group centered around Biyombo lasted only a couple of second quarter minutes because they couldn’t get anything in half court. Then he closed the final 6:35 with several variations, and there was just nothing there. Lowry banked home two driving layups in that stretch, Toronto’s only buckets in the final seven minutes.

“We stunk it up in the fourth quarter,” Casey said. The guys were so jacked up emotionally to start the game, (that) going through the game I thought we ran out of gas.”

It was also a curious time to go to four smalls. Those can be great lineups when a team wants to play 1-post or empty-post basketball with space and pace. But Toronto at that point was playing the hoops equivalent of a prevent offense at that point, dribbling out possessions and then running something late off a simple pick-and-roll.

When that’s all you’re doing, you might as well have another rebounder in the game. It’s also can be easier for defenses to switch liberally or hide guys when you go small, and it just didn’t work for Toronto. Maybe the small lineup would have worked had they stuck to their guns offensively, or maybe the slow-down tactic would have worked with different personnel. As it happened, nothing worked, and the Raps were lucky to dodge a bullet.

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The Pacers were led by another strong night from George, who had 26. The Raptors had DeMarre Carroll (and Powell, a few times) guard him straight up, without switches or a ton of help. They decided to live with the outcome in the hopes that other Pacers wouldn’t get to hot, but George Hill and Ellis played well enough to make it very close.

Hill (19 points, 8-for-11) pulled up behind picks, poked through soft Toronto traps and spotted up for open threes. Ellis (15, with seven assists) was at his best probing the defense, doing most of his damage going at the hoop and either scooping it up or dishing off to bigs.

But the road stops here for the current iteration of the Pacers. They have a transcendent star in George, and the emergence of rookie Myles Turner hints at improved frontcourt play going forward. They also have most of their guys under contract, enough cap space to add someone good, and the 20th and 50th picks in the upcoming draft.

“It’s been a long journey,” George said. “I’m very proud of this team, very proud of my guys.”

Meanwhile, the Raptors move on, where their prize for advancing for the first time in 15 years is a date with the veteran Miami Heat. The Heat wrapped up their series earlier in the day with a 106-73 win over Charlotte in Game 7. Now they’ll make their way to Canada, where the conference semifinal series starts on Tuesday.

“We look forward to the second round,” Lowry said, “the next challenge.”

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Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team's Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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