Despite an uneven set of six games, it feels fair to say we knew what to expect from both the Raptors and Pacers come Game 7. Paul George, a superstar slash supernova, would be close to transcendent; the Raptors bench would be as reliable as the Pacers bench was dubious; Kyle Lowry would hum with intensity but not quite be able to locate his shot; we'd rejoice in Norman Powell. That and more played out last night, in front of a record-setting Toronto crowd, as the Raptors beat the Pacers 89-84 to win their first seven game series in franchise history. It felt great.
In reflecting on Game 7 and the Raptors first playoff series win in 15 years, formerly the NBA's longest active streak, we should have known it would come down to which version of DeMar DeRozan, the longest serving Raptor, would show up. For almost half of those 15 years (seven to be exact), this Toronto team has had its fortunes tied to the young man from Compton, California. And in Game 7, DeRozan played possibly the most DeRozan game of his life -- 30 points on 10-for-32 shooting, a perfect 9-for-9 from the free throw line, five rebounds, two assists, three steals, two blocks, and one measly turnover in six seconds shy of 40 minutes of action.
DeRozan finished at +5 for the game, which is decent enough; but so much of his play (and value) defies even the concept of statistical analytics. In Game 7, DeRozan became somehow both more and less than his final line in the box score. And while our belief in him may have wavered, his self-confidence never did. For long time Raptors fans, it was the most Toronto outcome we could have expected.
In the first quarter, we saw DeRozan the good -- just shy of 50 percent shooting on 11 attempts, a dash of playmaking, a trip to the free throw line. Prepared for a wild ride over the next 36 minutes, many worried that a hot start for DeMar would mean more shots. These worries were not wrong.
For the second and third quarters, DeRozan kept shooting. He'd go 5-for-17 over that stretch, and take enough "what are you doing?" type shots to surely frustrate even the most ardent of fans. This was the DeRozan we know -- the up and down play, the fadeaways without a pray, the bail out calls, and even a breath-taking spin move for good measure. It was all on display. Whatever the result, Game 7 would be a referendum on DeRozan, and, in a different way, bring us all to a spiritual crossroads. If you were going to ride or die with DeRozan, as everyone in the organization insisted, well, you had to be willing to die.
How DeRozan and the Raptors will be remembered in the fourth quarter of this game will eventually be lost to time. But in the moment, with DeRozan going 0-for-4 and the Pacers making a run, it felt like every bad fan experience crashing back on land at once, a veritable tsunami of awful vibes. The Raptors' lead, which began the quarter at 14, shrunk to three. It became clear Toronto was just playing to run out the clock and not lose. It was a tense time.
And what was DeRozan's role as these minutes and seconds ticked by? First, he made a momentum busting play on George, taking a charge on a 1-on-1 breakaway that seems impossible in retrospect. The Raptors lead was maintained at eight, rather than slipping to five on the ensuing and-1 opportunity. Second, in the dying seconds DeRozan probably got away with a foul as he pushed Ian Mahinmi out of the way on George's alley-oop attempt. Call it what you will, but that's the way it happened. And finally, as he's done all year, in the ensuing chaos it was DeRozan who got fouled and hit the two free throws to put the game away in Toronto's favour.
"We got the monkey off our back, more than anything, these past couple of years" said DeRozan, answering the question on every fan's mind. "It was great. The energy, the moments. A lot of people don't get the opportunity to play a Game 7 when everything is on the line, and this guy [Lowry], and the team depending on you." And depend they did -- even as the Raptors bench rose up, even as the Pacers pushed on -- there was ride-or-die DeRozan. What else can you say?
"If we lost that game and he shot 32 times, we don't care," said Lowry. "He can live with that, and I can live with that too. At the end of the day, my man emptied that clip."
Over the weekend on Twitter, I opened the floor to ask: where were you when the Raptors last won a playoff series? The answers came flooding in from everywhere. Some people were babies, some were aimless teens that now find themselves in full-time careers (like me!), some came from other countries and were still learning English. There was talk of old video games, Vancouver Grizzlies jerseys, and fax machines. The throughline for it all was an emotional acknowledgement of the passage of time. We've been through a lot in Toronto, with the Raptors and in our own lives. And while basketball is surely not the most important thing in life, as a Raptors fan it was painful to take stock of all the lost years. You don't dwell on a first round series win unless you barely have one to dwell on.
After the game, coach Dwane Casey talked about being something of an underdog, which feels ridiculous for the coach of a 56-win, 2-seed to say. "I think think everybody wrote the Raptors off and gave us up for dead... I read some of the stuff, not only here but around the country, about how Indiana was going to win and the Raptors weren't going to get through this. I love that because I thought our guys used that as motivation, used it as fuel to fight, to scrap."
For outsiders, this kind of talk was strangely confrontational. Who had been counting the Raptors out? Where were these supposed pieces and predictions that had them losing to the 45-win Pacers? I'm sure they exist somewhere, but I think what Casey was getting at was not outward, but inward, more existential.
The Toronto Raptors, their city of fans, their country of basketball believers, had to convince themselves it could happen. We had to buy in to the idea that all of the bad, frustrating, absurd and disappointing things that had happened over the past 15 years -- over the past 21 years, really -- could be overcome. Casey, here for five years, knew it; DeRozan, here for seven years, knew it; and now, after everything, we know it too.