Hooooooooooooooooo boy. Here we go.
At 8:00pm Eastern, the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers will tip it off one more time, putting the cap on what has been a roller-coaster series for both teams.
I think I can speak for even the most optimistic Raptors fans when I say we feel like this right now:
It's time to admit it: we all underestimated Indiana. Regardless of the Raptors play, you have to give the Pacers a hell of a lot of credit. They showed up. This is a franchise that made back-to-back Conference Finals and took eventual champion Miami to seven games in 2012-13. Paul George has been nothing short of spectacular. And each night, another supporting player seems to step up and become a difference maker. George Hill has been dynamite. Solomon Hill and Ian Mahinmi have played above their heads. Myles Turner has been a menace. They've all been there when their team needed them most. It's what you need to pull of a first round upset.
Here are your keys to the game, and therefore, the Raptors season.
1. Paul George, Alpha and Omega
In our Round Table to preview the series, when asked what scared me most about the Pacers, I wrote the following:
George has been the best player in this series by leaps and bounds. Even on nights where his shot isn't working, he's rebounding the ball, making the right passes and creating offense for a team that has little. He's carrying Indiana on his back. He's personally made this series a coin flip.
Toronto isn't going to stop him, not completely. But we've seen him get rattled (he's tied for the playoff lead with three technical fouls so far). We've seen him have bad nights from the floor. DeMarre Carroll and Norman Powell need to live in his jersey and dare the other Pacers to make shots.
2. Kyle Lowry and the Curious Case of the Elbow
Lowry isn't fooling anyone by claiming that his shooting elbow is healed. As someone who has dealt with tendonitis and bursitis, let me tell you that at best it's uncomfortable, and at worst its debilitating. The only true cure is time and rest, both of which are in short supply for Toronto. This is rank speculation of course, but I think Kyle is probably past the debilitating stage, and now simply at the point where his elbow aches. The pain level varies; if he takes anti-inflammatory medication, he might feel just fine when the game starts. But the proof is in the pudding. Lowry set career highs this year by attempting 7.1 three's per game, and making roughly 39% of them. In this series he's attempting 6.5 long balls per game, but making just 17%. That's a problem that can't be overstated.
He was the Raptors most consistent threat from deep, a guy who would drop bombs in transition and on broken plays, who would bail out this team time and time again, like a superstar is supposed to. That hasn't happened in this series. For those who have mentioned that Lowry doesn't need to score to have good games, that's completely true -- but it's also not the way the success of this team was built. As our own John Gaudes mentioned yesterday, Lowry is setting a record for futility, not just from three, but from the floor in a playoff series. There's no way that's just Indiana's defense. Anyone who plays basketball knows it's a game of muscle memory, of comfort and familiarity. Guys have spots they like to get to, shots they practice over and over. Comfort zones. No matter what comfort zone Kyle manages to get to, his elbow will follow. If I'm Frank Vogel, I let Lowry shoot as much as he wants until he proves he's right.
3. Toronto's Favourite Son, DeMar DeRozan
With all that said, DeMar DeRozan needs to step up. Enough with the frustrated body language and poor decision making. These are things you can control, that you must control. Lowry is going to be a limited version of himself until he isn't and there's no way to tell when that ship with right itself. For DeRozan, stepping up doesn't mean scoring 40 points. It means playing the kind of decisive, creative game that he's capable of when he's at his best. It means getting into the paint, making the right pass, shooting when you're open, putting the fade-away in a box, getting to the line when you have a mismatch and getting back in transition. Playing his own best game. It means being aggressive, but calculated. It means having a short memory and not letting missteps weigh on you. It means harnessing all the little improvements he's made in the past seven seasons and putting them on display in one show of 'enough of this, already'.
We can worry about the off-season when it gets here. Right now, it's time for Game 7. Let's fire it up.
Where to Watch: TNT and Sportsnet, 8pm