The Toronto Raptors did something remarkable Sunday night: they finally advanced in the playoffs without convincing anyone they’ve solved their postseason problems.
Yes, the Raptors managed to win a playoff series, something they had only done once – in 2001 – in 21 NBA seasons, walking out of Air Canada Centre in Toronto with an 89-84 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of their first round series Sunday night. But it’s hard to look at the Raptors, given how this game played out, and think they have taken the next step as a franchise.
In the fourth quarter, Toronto scored 11 points. Over the final six minutes of the game, the Raptors frequently allowed the shot clock down well under 10 seconds before they got into their offense – which allowed the Pacers to go on a 15-2 run, turning a 16-point deficit into a one possession game with two minutes to play. Toronto even benefited from a horrendous no-call on DeMar DeRozan, who shoved Pacers center Ian Mahinmi in the back for what would’ve been an easy offensive rebound and put back inside the final 20 seconds with a three-point lead.
The truth is that Toronto advanced because Indiana couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities the Raptors presented to win the game, and along with it, the series.
Maybe this was how it had to happen, though. After collapses each of the past two seasons – giving up a 3-2 lead to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, and losing Game 7 at home, before getting swept by the Washington Wizards last year – maybe the way the Raptors were going to survive and advance in the postseason was to do so in a struggle, by escaping from a game that came down to the final moments.
Toronto’s all-star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan again underwhelmed. Lowry had 11 points and nine assists, but his shot looks broken. He went 5-for-14, including several awful misses, and it appears his injured right elbow has to be bothering him. DeRozan produced a gaudy point total (31), but to get there he shot a dismal 10-for-32, and took several horrible shots in the second half as the lead began to dwindle.
Interestingly, it took three Raptors who hadn’t been around for Toronto’s previous failures – Cory Joseph, Norman Powell and Bismack Biyombo – to finally push this franchise over the hump. Joseph, a Toronto native, was a fantastic pickup last summer as a free agent from the Spurs, giving the Raptors a serious upgrade over Greivis Vasquez as Lowry’s backup thanks to his ability to contribute at both ends. And after playing well throughout this series, Joseph’s eight points and four assists off the bench were a big help.
The impact Powell, a second round draft pick last June, had throughout this series also can’t be understated. Not only did he once again come in and make shots off the bench, scoring 13 points on six field goal attempts (and again thoroughly outplaying Terrence Ross), but he also played strong defense on Paul George, including a key steal in the fourth quarter. And Biyombo gave the Raptors great energy off the bench, combining with Jonas Valanciunas to grab 26 rebounds – including 10 offensive – to continue a series-long advantage for Toronto on the glass.
That rebounding advantage proved to be critical for Toronto, as was the fact Indiana simply didn’t have the horses. Paul George and George Hill were terrific, and the two of them and Monta Ellis combined for 60 points.
The other six players for the Pacers, though, combined for just 24, and that proved to be the difference. After a strong series and a terrific rookie season, big man Myles Turner struggled, going just 2-for-11, and other than Solomon Hill, Indiana’s bench was basically a non-factor.
It wasn’t pretty, and it barely worked, but Toronto managed to survive and advance, much to the relief of its passionate legions of die-hard fans north of the border who deserved a chance to celebrate a playoff series victory. It’ll undoubtedly serve as a temporary reprieve for the core members of this team, a group that has seen the past two seasons end in disappointing first round failures. Now comes a fascinating matchup with the Miami Heat, a team full of veterans who have been through countless playoff battles who won’t hesitate to take advantage of any insecurities the Raptors continue to show.
Miami has a center in Hassan Whiteside that can match Valanciunas’s size inside, and they have the kind of rugged wings – guys like Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng and Justise Winslow – that Toronto has always struggled with.
In less than 48 hours, the Raptors will host the Heat in an Eastern Conference semifinal. And while nothing about Sunday’s victory would lead anyone to think things have dramatically changed in Toronto, the only important thing has: for the first time in 15 years, the Raptors are moving on in the postseason, rather than going home. However they managed to do so, they’ll take it.