It took 15 years, a rollercoaster series and a nail-biting game seven, but the Toronto Raptors are finally back in the second round of the playoffs after their 89-84 win eliminated the Indiana Pacers.
DeMar DeRozan needed 32 shots to get his game-high 30 points, but he stepped up when it mattered most. Drafted by the Raptors back in 2009, he has felt the criticism as much as anyone after consecutive early playoff exits. DeRozan had plenty of help in game seven, but most of all this was his night.
Paul George, the star of the series, led Indiana with 26 points but managed only nine in the second half. George Hill added 19 as the Pacers pushed Toronto all the way.
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For the first time since game three, the Raptors played a complete first quarter on both ends of the floor, with DeRozan in attack mode and doing a better job of eluding George. DeRozan scored 13 points in the first frame as Toronto edged ahead 28-23.
Behind George and a cameo from Rodney Stuckey off the bench, Indiana kept it close. But the Toronto bench came to play, in particular Norman Powell who drilled a pair of corner threes, frustrated George with relentless defense and earned a deserved thumbs up from Casey during a second quarter timeout.
Still, given the weight of the Raptors’ playoff history, this did little to ease the tension inside the Air Canada Centre. It was far too early for this scarred fan base to get comfortable.
Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry entered the game shooting 31 percent from the field in the series and, whether it was the slump or a nagging elbow injury, he was reluctant to pull the trigger from deep. But he found other ways to contribute – sneaking in for layups, feeding DeRozan and grabbing key rebounds.
With Raptors head coach Dwane Casey leaning heavily on his guards, putting Cory Joseph and Powell alongside DeRozan and Lowry for a spell, Toronto had more success moving (and protecting) the ball. Even so, George’s shot-making limited the Raptors to a 50-44 half-time lead.
Whatever Casey said in the locker room sparked a ferocious start to the second half, with Toronto surging ahead on an 11-2 run. The Pacers responded like a team with leaders who have played in conference finals, hitting back with a 7-0 run of their own. George connected on four of his first five triples.
But Toronto refused to back down with the season on the line. Riding the energy of a frenzied home crowd, first Patrick Patterson (11 points), then DeRozan helped to restore the Raptors’ double-digit lead. With DeMarre Carroll slowing George, Indiana struggled to find another source of points and Toronto had built a 14-point lead by the end of the third quarter.
Still, those playoff ghosts lurked, and DeRozan missed three straight shots at the start of the fourth quarter as the nerves jangled. But Indiana’s red-hot second half of game six seemed like a distant memory as makeable shots rattled out.
Then, with the prize within reach, the wheels threatened to come off for the Raptors as Indiana went on a desperate 15-2 run. Solomon Hill’s dunk cut the deficit to six, before Monta Ellis silenced the crowd with a three-pointer late in the shot clock. Lowry responded with a driving layup, giving Toronto a five-point lead with 2:10 to play.
George made two free-throws to make it a one-possession game again, and had the ball in his hands with 26.9 seconds left. But his pass was deflected and DeRozan sealed the game from the foul line.
As the playoff ghosts were banished from the Air Canada Centre, and the weight of history was lifted from the shoulders of Casey, DeRozan and Lowry, Toronto could look forward to the second round. The celebrations will be short (the Miami Heat await on Tuesday night) but sweet for a franchise that was overdue some post-season smiles.