It looked, again, like the Raptors had figured it out. Coming off the heels of one of the franchise’s great comeback victories in Game 5, when Norman Powell, Rodney Stuckey’s feet, and Drake’s palms won the night, Toronto was off to a 22-11 lead in Game 6. They were making the right plays, they were moving the basketball, and Kyle Lowry was his brilliant self. All it would take was some fortitude to withstand the inevitable desperation push from Indiana. But then…
Those two words – but then - will be familiar for anyone who’s followed the Toronto Raptors franchise for any length of time. It’s the pivot point for almost any appreciable moment since Isiah Thomas came ripping through that banner like the Kool-Aid Man.
Vince Carter dropped 50 in Game 3, but then missed the series-defining shot. A new franchise cornerstone came in Chris Bosh, but then Bryan Colangelo drafted Andrea Bargnani and Bosh eventually left for sandier beaches and two championships. Terrence Ross saved the ball and the Raptors came back against the Nets, but then Kyle Lowry couldn’t lift the shot over Paul Pierce.
It came back last night, that phrase. After a promising start, the Raptors fell apart in all facets. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan finished 7-for-27. The role players that had rescued them in Game 5 never got it going, as Norman Powell missed all four of his three-point shots and Bismack Biyombo posted a -23. Beyond the stats, though, Toronto never showed signs of life on the offensive end. The same faces we saw in the third quarter of Game 5 appeared late in Game 6. Against an inferior opponent, the Raptors were outplayed and they knew it.
That’s the big thing, too. Sure, the Indiana Pacers made the tweaks they needed to – hedging on the pick and roll to make life difficult for Lowry, baiting DeRozan into drives just to collapse at the rim, daring anyone else to beat them - but more importantly, they showed life, a desire to win the game. They looked like a team playing for everything in an elimination game. The Raptors just didn’t.
"We have to take a long, hard look in the mirror at ourselves," said Patrick Patterson, who had just five points in his second start of the series. "Do we want to be the team that won 56 games… or do we want to be this team that’s come into Indiana the past two times and got blown out of the water? We have to decide what we have to be."
After six games to decide, Patterson and everyone else will take that last look into the mirror before Game 7 on Sunday night. When you consider everything that’ll ride on this one game, one can only hope they come to the right decision.
Yeah, this Game 7 is a big one, as we all try to grasp for reasons to hope that may not be out there. People have said they won’t watch, that home court is the difference, that the Pacers’ role players will normalize to their mediocre selves, that they believe this time it’ll be different for the Raptors (it has to be, right?). The fact is, we just don’t know. You can spend hours watching these games, looking for trends, picking out storylines – and many people have - just to have your beliefs dissolve almost immediately.
We don’t know what to expect from Game 7, because we’ve had our expectations dashed all series. And that begins and ends with the play of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who have more pressure on them right now than anyone else in the NBA playoffs. Starting with Lowry, it’s become apparent that the elbow injury is real, and will not be disappearing anytime soon. There’s simply no other explanation for his drop off in shooting, save another injury he’s keeping from people that happens to line up perfectly with when he banged his elbow. Since that fateful March 20 in Orlando, Lowry has shot 31% overall. In this series, as Bruce Arthur points out, he’s floundering his way to history.
Uh oh. (via @bruce_arthur) pic.twitter.com/J5LkSUvcZp— John Gaudes (@johngaudes) April 30, 2016
Credit to Lowry, he’s been able to impact these games in other ways. He’s averaged 7.3 assists per game, one notch above his season output and three above last year’s playoffs. However, when the Pacers started to run a big man at him after the first quarter of Game 6, pushing him further into the corner off the pick and roll, he started to turn the ball over. Expect that to stay in Game 7. The Raptors will have to adjust.
They’ll need to go back to the drawing board on DeMar DeRozan too. All series, DeRozan has needed to get into space to do anything productive. Save a couple pindowns, that disappeared in Game 6, as DeRozan went right back into his heavy-dribbling, mid-range shooting mode. His shot chart for the series looks like a teenage boy's beard acne, as Paul George has brought out all his worst tendencies.
For DeRozan, Game 7 is especially critical. This series has been damning for his resigning case, especially on a team who would subsequently have their hands tied during the most fruitful three years in NBA free agency history. With this in mind, people have looked at his game and turned on him in droves. They’ve opined for his release even before the series is over, and begun planning for a team post-DeRozan. One game won’t solve anything, but the Raptors need DeRozan to show up and make good decisions. Shoot when you’re open, pass when the double is coming, and stop dribbling into traffic. Trust that the role players are good enough – heck, for the most part, they’ve done the job required of them in this series. DeRozan, who doesn’t have an elbow-sized excuse, has not.
Then again, if the Raptors win Game 7, very little of this matters. They will get the opportunity to shake this series off and take on a real test against Miami or Charlotte, two teams that provide real, objective barometers for a 56-win team. The one-star Pacers are not a barometer for a team with that win total. They’re the barometer for the Toronto Raptors, who never seem to take the easy route.
If they lose? The core of DeRozan and Lowry would then be 0-for-3 in first round series where they were heavily favoured. The franchise would still be without a best-of-7 series win, a mental burden that seems too big for an unchanged core to take on in the spring of 2017. This Game 7 may not be the definite end for Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, but it almost certainly marks the end for one of the above in the Raptors organization. By the time we all go to bed on Sunday night, the Raptors will either have hit the reset button or be moving into a new era of basketball, one that may not be as fun to watch in the short-term. When asked what’s on the line in Game 7, DeRozan was short and direct: "We can’t make it seem like a funeral, it’s a chance to go out there and compete at the highest level."
Unfortunately, by laying an egg in Game 6, the Raptors have pulled out the shovels and started to dig. In Game 7, we’ll see about the rest of the funeral. Watch through baited breath if you must.