Predictability was king for the Raptors this season. Night to night, you knew what the Raptors were going to deliver. Toronto's crawling, methodical, defiantly efficient offense was going to thrive on the driving and play-making mastery of its guards; the bench was going to be cohesive and defensively stout; and the team's All-Stars were going to dependably carry the scoring load. The result: unwavering wire-to-wire consistency and a franchise-best 56 wins.
Through 11 games in the playoffs, the Raptors stuck to their predictable identity ... sort of. Instead of expecting the same winning formula displayed by the team in the regular season, these playoffs have had Raptors fans expecting one thing by the end of each agonizing game: vacant hair follicles. It had been a month since the real Raptors had shown up for more than a short-lived run here, or a nice quarter there. Absent stars and general unevenness hounded the Raptors through the end of Game 4 against the Heat.
At long last, though, Game 5 on Wednesday night saw the Raptors finally revisit some of the cruxes that made the team so damned good over the course of 82 games. With a chance at the Eastern Conference Finals hanging in the balance, the Raptors gave a performance worthy of their stellar regular season.
It originated from a first quarter in which the Raptors broke free from the offensive strategy that has bogged them down in these playoffs. Against Miami in particular, the Raptors have made things difficult on themselves, repeatedly letting the shot clock wind down to 12, 10 or even eight seconds before initiating any sort of action - a process that has translated into lazy one-off pick-and-roll sets that more often than not have ended with against-the-clock, contested mid-range jumpers for DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry or Cory Joseph.
Refreshingly, clean and well-crafted was the nature of the majority of Toronto's looks in the opening quarter of Game 5. For example, check out the open shot created for Patrick Patterson out of this hand-off to DeRozan followed by a DeRozan-Bismack Biyombo pick-and-roll - an action that started with about 17 seconds on the clock:
That triple didn't fall, but the one created for Lowry by a Biyombo screen on the ensuing in-bound play - with roughly 20 seconds on the clock - sure did.
Springing Lowry free to rain hell-fire from long distance and DeRozan using his gravity as a driver to create spot-up looks for others were pillars of the Raptors sixth-ranked offense this season. Given that they were put to use early in Game 5, it's not surprising that Toronto opened the game on a 17-4 run.
"When the ball moved, we moved," said Casey of the Raptors renewed commitment to playing their typical offensive style. "They do a great job of really packing the paint, protecting the paint, and if you stand, you help them. It’s basically like a zone, and the way you beat a zone is body movement, ball movement from side to side. I thought we did a better job tonight of doing that."
Toronto's early offensive explosion was also buoyed by the Heat's inability to protect the ball. Much like in Game 2, where the Heat turned the ball over 11 times in the opening frame, Toronto pestered Miami's ball-handlers with active hands, leading to easy baskets in the open floor - baskets that Casey said helped tee up the solid nights DeRozan and Lowry turned in.
"I thought that was the difference to start the game," said Casey. "We were able to get out and get some easy points in transition off our defense ... I thought it helped Kyle’s rhythm and helped DeMar’s rhythm to get out in transition like that and get some easy buckets because this is a very good defensive team."
With a restoration of its core offensive principles, Toronto got off to a blistering start, leading 26-10 after an arena-shaking DeMarre Carroll three-pointer dropped with 2:01 remaining in the first.
As the game flipped to the second quarter, another old friend of the Raptors made a timely appearance.
Throughout the regular season, as Casey stuck to his guns and left his flawed starting five mostly unchanged, the Lowry & The Bench Mob lineup was as reliable a five-man unit as existed anywhere in the NBA. In 297 minutes together, Lowry, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patterson and Biyombo posted a 111.1 / 94.7 / +16.4 efficiency slash-line, but because of injuries and playoff rotation oddities, it had only played 22 minutes together through 11 playoff contests.
For a three minute stretch in the second quarter of Game 5, the band got back together and turned back the clock to its mid-November heyday. With 8:18 remaining the frame, Biyombo took Jason Thompson's place alongside Lowry and his former bench-mates with the Raptors leading 37-29. Two minutes and 49 seconds of furious driving, kicking, motion and smothering defense later, the Raptors led 49-31.
The 12-2 run was so reminiscent of the exhilarating outbursts that unit routinely provided as one of the hallmarks of the 2015-16 Raptors. A less dominant stretch in the fourth quarter - at which time the Raptors descended into prevent offense mode - saw Lowry & The Bench Mob's overall plus-minus numbers on the night take a hit; they ended as a modest +4 on the night. But nothing from that fourth quarter stretch can take away the uproarious three-minute run Toronto's best regular season lineup put together in that rollicking second quarter.
Ultimately, none of it - not the improved offensive process, not the contributions of the bench, not the start-to-finish intensity on the defensive end - would have mattered had DeRozan and Lowry not played to their regular season standards in Game 5.
For almost a month now, DeRozan and Lowry have been 'just one game away' from righting their respective ships, only to kick the can down the road with each additional dreadful shooting night. Had they maintained their playoff form on Wednesday, the Raptors could very well be staring down elimination in Game 6 on Friday.
Instead of bricking the Raptors into trouble like has happened all too often in these playoffs, DeRozan and Lowry elevated themselves, and justified Casey's ride-or-die attitude towards his All-Star duo.
Battling a thumb that he said felt like a "blowtorch" on his hand, DeRozan had his best, an gutsiest game of the post-season. He scored 34 points on 22 shots, hitting his only three point try and finally replicating his regular season proficiency at the free throw line, going 11-of-11, with nine of those makes coming in the fourth quarter.
Lowry's shooting wasn't exactly knockdown; he went just 4-of-16 in the second half, 9-of-25 on the night. But what Lowry lacked in efficiency, he made up for with defense, play-making and theatrics.
So how did Lowry and DeRozan halt their playoff-long slumps?
DeRozan's shot-creation process wasn't all that different from the one that has failed him throughout the playoffs. He got to the rim for just six of his 22 attempts. In fact, his total of five drives on the night, per NBA.com, was well below the 9.2 he's averaged in the post-season, and significantly less than the 11.6 he piled up on a nightly basis in the regular season.
Some credit definitely has to go to Biyombo, who in his second start in place of Jonas Valanciunas, was a portable brick wall, setting heart-felt screens that helped open up extra space for his guards. Biyombo tallied 8 screen assists on the night, per NBA.com, adding to his league-leading total through two rounds.
But ultimately, the simple explanation is the one that explain DeRozan's Game 5 response best. He just made shots he normally hit during his All-Star campaign.
"They’re our guys. We can disparage them all we want to and talk about how bad they’re shooting," said Casey of DeRozan and Lowry after the game. "You don’t forget how to score the basketball. It’s going to come back."
"You have to give them credit ... They're All-Stars," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who also acknowledged the early groove DeRozan and Lowry found as one of the factors that spelled doom for his team.
Lowry's contributions were louder than DeRozan's. His 4-of-9 night from long distance lifted up an otherwise underwhelming shooting effort, and the 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals he racked up helped to form a quintessential Lowry stat line.
On defense, he dazzled. One possession down the stretch stood out. With about 1:30 remaining in the fourth, Miami had the ball down 90-87. Goran Dragic set up in the same corner from which he hit a critical three-pointer in Game 1 thanks in part to a mistake made my Lowry. He learned from it, forcing a turnover instead of relinquishing a heart-wrenching, game-tying bucket.
"They ran that high pick they've been running with D-Wade," said Lowry. "In Game 1, Dragic hit the corner three, and I tried to get to him a little bit quicker tonight and I got to him and I had him beat to his spot and he threw it away."
On the subsequent possession, Lowry provided yet another flashback to the Raptors' incredible regular season.
Kyle Lowry with the step-back game winner against the Cavs! https://t.co/fgcY2OxrlH— NBA SKITS (@NBA_Skits) February 27, 2016
Then came the second daggerous Lowry bucket to push the score to 95-89, essentially sealing the game for the Raptors and putting the long-suffering franchise and its fans on the verge of breaking through to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time.
After so much strife and uncertainty throughout the playoffs, Wednesday night just might have washed away all of the negative feelings that fogged up the Raptors over the last few weeks. The energy with which the Raptors moved the ball to open Game 5 was infectious, and made you remember what made this team so enjoyable in the regular season. We got a callback to a time when Raptors fans looked forward to the reserves hitting the floor, because it usually meant good things were afoot. And after all the questioning and hand-wringing over the Raptors' All-Stars being incapable of living up to the moment, we finally got the full Lowry and DeRozan experience at a crucial juncture in the playoffs.
Everything about the Raptors in Game 5 felt ordinary and habitual. Large swaths of the win felt a like they'd been copied and pasted from games this team has played before. If they can find that same recognizable form for just one more game against the Heat, they'll reach a level that isn't recognizable in these parts at all.