Perfection is so overrated. Yeah, it would have been nice if the Raptors put together a replica of Game 3 and methodically defeated Indiana with wire-to-wire dominance in Game 5; the frazzled fan base certainly would have lived with that. On the other hand, a blasé, convincing performance would have deprived the city of one of the most raucous and emotionally stirring 12-minute stretches in franchise history.
You could dive head first into the innumerable ways the Raptors tried to sewer their hopes of advancing in the first 36 minutes and stay submerged for days. Lowry further prolonging his shooting slump, Patrick Patterson going -20 in his long-demanded first start, the Raptors laughable defense of the three-point line and Paul George getting so hot from the field that it felt like two stops in one whenever he missed -- everything was coming together to drown the hopes of the team and its weary fans in those opening three quarters.
That fourth quarter, though...
You could almost tell the acceptance stage was starting to kick in for the Raptors - acceptance that the playoffs just might not be for this team, it's star players or it's coach. Down 90-77 after bungling three quarters (seven, if you go back to Saturday's loss), even the most optimistic observers started to feel the inevitability of another playoff shortcoming creep in.
Of course, the following 12 minutes of action didn't follow the standard playoff script for this franchise. Minute by minute, possession by possession, an unlikely collection of Raptors crafted one of the most intoxicatingly fun quarters the franchise has ever produced -- simultaneously restoring the pre-playoff belief that this year's team truly is different from the ultimately disappointing groups that faltered in 2014 and 2015.
With so much transpiring at such a whiplash-inducing pace, let's dissect every component of the Raptors glorious 25-9 fourth quarter.
12:00 - 11:00
The faintest glimmer of hope managed to pierce through the panicky fog that enveloped the Air Canada Centre as the fourth quarter started. Paul George was setting fire to the Raptors defense -- 37 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 5-of-9 from three -- and had played the whole game but for a three minute blip in the opening half. That tiny stretch sans George (and George Hill ... and Monta Ellis) triggered an 11-1 run for the Raptors that brought them within three.
It seemed unfathomable that Vogel would sit his three best players again to start the fourth, with a series-swinging victory on the line, if not for something he said before the game.
"I'm at a nine man rotation. I still feel confident with the guys in our rotation," said Vogel. "The risk of going too short in a rotation is, 'you say well yeah you know, they can rest tomorrow.' That's a common thing that you hear as a head coach. But it's important that they're fresh in the fourth quarter. If you wanna make shots down in crunch time, if you've played 46 minutes, maybe you're not gonna be as fresh as you can be. I think I'm comfortable with where I'm at at nine."
Vogel's dedication to the bench crew spearheaded by Ty Lawson and Rodney Stuckey was the one crack you could conceivably see the Raptors opening up in to a game-changing chasm.
Sixty seconds, one Lowry jumper and two defensive stops later, the Raptors were on their way. 90-79.
11:00 - 10:00
In desperate times, sometimes you just have to throw things at the wall and pray. Dwane Casey did that to great effect in the fourth quarter. Instead of doing something that's worked all season and rolling out the Kyle Lowry & The Bench Mob unit, Casey opted to take advantage of Indiana's slight interior and embrace the small-ball options his roster affords him.
With a unit of Lowry, Cory Joseph, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell and Bismack Biyombo, Casey managed to ignite the fluid drive-and-kick cadence the Raptors have mastered all year. The second minute of the quarter was scoreless on both sides, but a couple examples of rhythmic ball-movement and a brutal Stuckey miss were the warning tremors for what was about to come. 90-79.
10:00 - 9:00
Another Stuckey brick at 9:36 followed by a Biyombo trip to the line set the comeback fully in motion. DeRozan went to the bench for a breather at 9:23, replaced by Terrence Ross, now the de facto small-ball four.
Another haphazard trip to the offensive end for the Indiana resulted in a rushed, contested three that popped in and out. Raptors ball. As the nine minute mark struck, Kyle Lowry crossed centre court. 90-81.
9:00 - 8:00
If the Raptors sent a few pebbles tumbling downhill in the first three minutes, the fourth minute saw it evolve into a crushing avalanche. Not to be a highlight truther for one of the most electric plays of the night, but the Raptors may have gotten a break when Kyle Lowry wasn't called for a travel one second before this thunderous Biyombo jam.
Big dunk from Biyombo pic.twitter.com/DoqseAkJ62— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) April 27, 2016
Close call to be sure, but it's a moot point now. The pendulum was now forcefully swinging Toronto's way.
It got tense at the 8:36 mark. Stuckey, incapable of hitting a shot from the floor (he was 1-of-10 on the night) got himself a pair of free throw tries on a drive. With the stoppage, Vogel relented. The Georges, Paul and Hill re-entered the game. Buzzkill potential loomed large.
Stuckey kept the dream alive. A pair of free throw misses sent the Raptors down the floor, only for Lowry to miss from long distance. For about five seconds, it felt like one of weightiest missed shots in a team history book full of them. It seemed like Lowry's poor shooting series was finally going to bite into a main artery, and the Pacers were going to weather the storm with George now back in the game. Only for five seconds, though.
The next offensive possession saw Lowry get tangled up with George, sending the Pacers superstar to the ground and the ball into the palms of the rookie Powell, who screamed down the court for the first of his two monumental finishes in transition. 90-85.
8:00 - 7:00
Throughout the first three quarters, the Raptors were absolutely punished by the Pacers' three-point barrage. Conceding the baseline to drivers, then over-helping when they neared the rim, opened up shooter after shooter for uncontested corner threes. In transition, Raptor defenders routinely crossed wires resulting in acres of space for unmanned Pacers to conduct target practice.
Funnily enough, Indiana's first basket of the fourth quarter came despite some of the best three-point defense the Raptors had displayed to that point. Sound, on-a-string rotations allowed the Raptors to force this C.J. Miles mid-range two that mercifully fell for the flailing Pacers.
Not the result the Raptors wanted, but that possession illustrated the defensive focus that allowed the Raptors to keep a lid on their own basket while trying to fill up Indiana's.
Toronto responded quickly. Joseph danced through Pacers defenders for one of his patented difficult-made-easy lay-ins. Then the second-most popular hometown kid in the house had his obligatory moment.
Stuckey was candid, saying he played "shi—y" Said he didn’t even know this happened:https://t.co/a2BhvgsilW— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 27, 2016
The fall was an amusing cherry on top of the poop-flavoured frozen yogurt that was Stuckey's performance.
George seemed especially dejected after single-handedly putting the Pacers so far out in front, only to watch the bench squander it away.
"I'm not about putting guys down, putting teammates down, but individually everybody has to bring it," said George of the second-unit's struggles. "It's another level that they gotta take it to."
Vogel said post game that he considered steering clear of the all-bench unit that struggled early in the second quarter, but that he decided to trust them. "Those guys had a tough stretch there."
With the hilarity box check-marked, and the Pacers studs back in, the Raptors turned their attention to getting serious about completing the comeback. 92-87.
7:00 - 6:00
Kudos to Casey for getting weird. Just six players hit the floor in the final frame for the Raptors, and the two different lineup combos that played were completely untouched in the regular season.
"I think it was just like a group out there that was playing hard and playing together and we were on one string," said Lowry. "I think that group we just played. We just was like, all right, we ain't got no choice but to try to just grind it out and get stops and push. I think the one thing about it was Biz was rebounding the ball well and Cory was pushing, myself was pushing and DeMar had it going a little bit. So we just kinda spaced it out and we had four smalls and Biz set screens and got us good shots."
Ross opened the minute with a bang -- a corner three that brought the Raptors within two. He'd do some Ross-ier things in the following sixty seconds, but for a brief moment, Ross was the hero whose clutch triple set the stage for one of the most uproarious moments the ACC has ever played host to:
Norman Powell flying! https://t.co/PhrCIzwPJ5— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 27, 2016
Next time down the floor, finally a hiccup by George as he charged into the chest of a stationary Lowry.
Charged. That's one word for what was going on in the arena. 92-92.
6:00 - 5:00
Three missed trifectas for Ross in a 51 second span reminded everybody of the madness he can incite. He could have missed three more, and it wouldn't have taken away his first, though. Tuesday night's Ross wasn't the sheepish and fragile disappointment of playoffs past. His accuracy might have waned, but his confidence sure didn't. Thanks to a continued defensive intensity, Ross's misfires didn't mute the vibes in crowd. And even with the overzealous misses, he'll forever be one of the six players who helped the Raptors save the 2015-16 season. 92-92.
5:00 - 4:00
DeRozan came back in for Ross at 4:55. First possession with DeRozan in: an Indiana shot clock violation caused by some oppressive on-ball defense by Joseph, and some fierce off-ball positioning by Powell on George. Indiana's severe lack of half-court ingenuity sure helped, too.
Next, a quintessential Raptors half-court set. Joseph probed the defense around a pair of Biyombo screens before dishing it off to Lowry. Then came the big man with his third and most forceful pick of the possession, freeing up all sorts of real estate for Lowry in the middle of the floor. His gravity sucked in George, leaving DeRozan wide open near the elbow. Kick, stroke, three, bedlam. 95-92.
4:00 - 3:00
Analysis of DeRozan's struggles in Games 1 through 4 consumed swimming pools worth of ink. Before Game 5, he had been unplayably bad. His contract status, his future with the team, his mental toughness -- all debated with fervour in comment sections and on radio over the last week and a half.
In a matter of forty seconds in the fourth quarter, he flashed all of the traits that earned him so many supporters during the regular season. That lead-taking, heart-palpitating three was the first act. His explosion around yet another stiff Biyombo screen followed by a laser pass to Joseph in the corner for three was the second. In those 40 seconds you could almost see weight he carried on his shoulders evaporate.
"I just felt like my normal self ... It's all about patience. You can't get flustered, you can't get frustrated, you gotta stay the course," said DeRozan. "We mixed up a couple things to try to get me easier shots, a couple new sets. And we tried to speed up the tempo a little bit and it worked in our favour."
DeRozan's final line: 34 points on 10-of-22 shooting, 2-of-4 from distance and 12-of-13 from the line. It was the kind of performance you pay max money for. 98-92.
3:00 - 2:00
Finally, a relatively calm pocket in the action. No ground-shaking Raptors buckets or heart-wrenching George mini-explosions. Just a toughly contested lay up for George - Indiana's third and fourth points of the quarter - and a refreshing drive to the rim by Lowry resulting in a couple free throws. Catch your breath now. 100-94.
2:00 - 1:00
Some nervousness undoubtedly crept into the stands in the penultimate minute of the game. A DeRozan mid-range jumper that looked far too much like shots of playoff games past gave Indiana the ball. And Myles Turner exploited the rebounding mismatch the Raptors assumed by going small, hauling down a critical offensive board over Powell and Lowry before going back up and giving the Pacers life with 1:12 on the clock. 100-96.
1:00 - 0:00
Lowry, like DeRozan has had his play broken down and questioned throughout the series. Another off night shooting the ball has Lowry sitting at a retina-burning 31.4 percent clip in the series; his 18.8 percent mark from three will straight up give you glaucoma if you stare at it too long. But the thing about Lowry is that he's still able to affect winning when his shots aren't falling.
The charge he took on George earlier was one example, a leaping tap-out for an offensive rebound in the closing minute was another. Lowry got blocked in the following seconds, but the play chewed precious seconds off the clock the Raptors were hoping would expire just 12 minutes earlier. "At the end of the day I'm not playing good basketball as far as making shots, but I can do everything else to help my team win games. Tonight, making a pass, taking a charge, a tip out, just trying to help my team win," said Lowry.
Indiana had a clutch, last-minute rebound up its sleeve as well. A rebound that led to a chaotically-created corner three for Solomon Hill that made it a one-point game. All of a sudden, the nightmarish events of 2014 and 2015 came screaming back to mind. After DeRozan calmly sunk two free throws, overtime was on the table; it would have been a real test of luck to hope the Pacers and George would stay ice cold if given an extra five minutes and a clean slate to operate with.
Joy, confusion, fear, crushing despair and euphoria -- every single one of those emotions and more were felt in the final 11.8 seconds. Monta Ellis's ill-advised contested two with three seconds remaining while down three (yes, really) was followed up by an a narrow out of bounds review. Pacers ball with 2.7 on the clock.
It might as well have been Paul Pierce's face adorning the shirts of the 19,000 fans in attendance. How could you not have visions of The Truth's playoff daggers with Indiana trying to tie the game with a final shot. They almost freaking did, too, after Powell failed to carry out his assignment on George upon the inbound pass.
"He was supposed to foul in that last situation," said Casey about Powell. "I thought he was reaching, but he didn't grab him. We said 'if he dribbles, grab him' and he said he tried to but he passed it before the officials called it."
That George pass left Solomon Hill unencumbered as he tried to extend the game. One tenth of a second quicker on the release and he would have, and with that very well could have flushed the Raptors 12 minutes of fury down the toilet. A microsecond sooner and the Raptors might be staring down the barrel of its most fantastic first-round flame-out to date, with an upheaval in personnel possibly waiting in the not-so-distant future.
But it was late. 102-99.