The Toronto Raptors beat the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 for their first series win since 2001. They face the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals.
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Every Game 7 is a moment, contained and distilled. The stakes are self-evident. The pressures weigh heavy. Most players and coaches involved recite their lines insisting that they’ll approach this game as if it stands alone, but who could believe them? Potential elimination doesn’t blot out all that came before it. The finality of the proceedings is charged by its context—made richer, more meaningful, and unquestionably earned.
In the case of the Raptors, every possession was also backdropped by the franchise’s dispiriting recent history. Painful first-round losses (first in Game 7 heartbreak at home in 2014, then in an embarrassing sweep the following year) could not be forgotten. They followed the Raptors wherever they went throughout the season, unnerving even the most capable players among them. To put those ghosts to rest would require a final acknowledgement. The players made one with every word uttered in the lead-up to this decisive game and, even more so, in all that went unsaid.
“If we—I’m not even going to say it in words—but yes,” Kyle Lowry told reporters on Saturday when asked if a Game 7 loss would mark the season a failure. “It determines a lot, what happens [Sunday].”
What happened was a nervous, fretful affair that ended a mess. For Toronto, though, the night also streamed confetti from the rafters and lifted a burden from Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and head coach Dwane Casey. It would be horrid revisionism to say the Raptors played with poise down the stretch of this critical game. Indiana mounted a 17–4 fourth-quarter run, after all, thanks to the assistance of Toronto’s flustered attempts at game management as nervous turnovers abound. There may be no satisfactory answer for what ultimately saved the Raps—The officiating? The Pacers’ own blunders? The aid of a ticking clock?—but what matters most is that they were saved at all. Toronto will take a series win no matter how clumsy because it knows well the alternative.
“A nation exhales,” remarked TNT play-by-play man Ian Eagle in the wake of the 89–84 win on Sunday. It may be weeks before the Raptors faithful can catch their breath. The stressors went beyond the tension between a moment and a narrative. DeRozan fired away hysterically, totaling 30 points on the night from 32 field-goal attempts. There can be virtue in volume, though less so when every self-determined jumper left the Raptors teetering. Fits of flighty perimeter defense also gave up open lanes to Paul George, Monta Ellis and George Hill throughout the night, eating away at whatever advantage Toronto could muster.
Whatever calm could be had came in small but essential doses. Rookie guard Norman Powell played with a cool that no first-year player should have a right to. Patrick Patterson, who didn’t even start in this series until Game 5, hit a pair of threes in the fourth quarter to stall Indiana’s run. Bismack Biyombo and Jonas Valanciunas came up with crucial rebounds (and totaled 26 boards between them, 10 offensive) to turn or extend possession. Lowry had his share of errors (he shot 5 of 14 from the field), but the hampered All-Star still hit the floor to seize loose balls and tried to keep his head up when the offense constricted. It was barely enough for a win and barely enough for relief.
Still it brought a smile to Casey’s face as he took a victory lap from the podium. Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s bold general manager, interrupted the proceedings to plant a kiss on his coach’s head. Tomorrow’s Raptors will have to deal with the Heat, a challenging second-round opponent. Sunday’s Raptors are free.