The Toronto Raptors know that when the NBA playoffs begin, home-court advantage and an accordingly high seed won’t matter all that much if their stars don’t shine at crunch time.
Thursday night in Indianapolis, the Raptors found their true North when they stood oOf n the precipice of defeat. As a result, they realize that if they face the Indiana Pacers in a 2-7 first-round playoff series, they’ll be ready to handle the occasion.
Of any NBA team, the Raptors know better than all others that playing at home in the playoffs is hardly a guarantee of success. Toronto earned home-court advantage in each of the last two first-round playoff series, only to lose — by a little to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, and by a lot to the Washington Wizards in 2015. Should the Raptors face Indiana one month from now, they know they’re guaranteed nothing. Yet, if you wanted to explain why Toronto is one spot from the No. 1 seed in the East, and Indiana is one spot from the No. 8 seed in the same largely jumbled conference, Thursday night’s game in Bankers Life Fieldhouse would suffice as a more than adequate example.
Toronto’s stars played like stars in a moment of consequence, while Indiana once again allowed a razor-close game to slip through its fingers. The stories of a season for two clubs could not have been more different… or familiar.
For the Raptors, this game meant something, and not just in relationship to the possibility of a playoff reunion with Indiana. Toronto had wobbed in recent weeks, losing at home to both the Rockets and Bulls and stumbling to an extent not seen since December, before the big January surge which catapulted the Raptors to the second spot in the East. A Tuesday win in Milwaukee without Jonas Valanciunas was certainly worth enjoying, but the Bucks — as tough as they often are at home — remain a fundamentally unreliable team.
The Pacers are almost certainly going to make the playoffs, so it’s hard to paint them with the same brush as the Bucks. A victory in Indianapolis would give Toronto the reassurance that despite a rather pedestrian month of March, it still possessed the identity of a team ready to rise above formidable competition, a team ready to take its place in the history of a largely snake-bitten franchise.
Pulling a game out of the fires of overtime is just the way for Toronto to say that its season — if it ever had been derailed in the first place — is now very much back on track.
It’s true that the Raptors — down four midway through the fourth quarter — took their sweet time in asserting themselves. However, when everything about this game absorbed the urgency and tension inside the Pacers’ home building, the Raptors’ foremost players stepped forward.
This was a night when stars struggled. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry hit 8 of 21 field goals. Indiana’s Paul George went 7 for 24 from the field. DeMar DeRozan hit 9 of 26 shots for the Raptors. If his evening was evaluated in full, DeRozan’s performance was ordinary. However, when players rescue their teams in the crucible of last-minute pressure, any first-half or third-quarter wobbles can be pushed to the side.
He might have struggled from the field in the previous three quarters, but in the fourth, DeRozan came alive. He scored 10 late points to erase the Raptors’ multi-possession deficit and send the game into overtime. Given an extra period, the Raptors then turned to Lowry. He wasn’t at his best for most of the night, but in the extra stanza, he scored eight points. The Pacers, as a team, scored nine. Toronto won a 16-9 extra period, and with George unable to bust loose, Indiana fell to 1-7 in overtime games this season. The Pacers stood toe-to-toe with the Raptors — as they’ve done on a relentlessly regular basis this season. Yet, the end of the drama was all too familiar for a ballclub which is thinking that it could be the East’s 2 seed instead of Toronto. Had all those overtime losses flowed in the Pacers’ direction this season, they would be within striking distance of the 2 seed.
Instead, Indiana is likely to face the 2 seed in the first round.
It offers no guarantee that Toronto will advance, but it does show why one season is on the verge of producing something special, and the other is mudddling along, trying to break free from the chains of inconsistency.
As stated earlier, Toronto played against Milwaukee without Valanciunas. The big man was still absent on Thursday in Indianapolis, meaning Bismack Biyombo had to step in and play extended minutes — 42, all told, in this overtime game. Biyombo pulled down 25 rebounds for the Raptors. Value-added performances such as that one illustrate why Toronto is going to be a 2 seed at worst in the East.
The Pacers, outscored by 14 points at the free throw line in a late-season home game, couldn’t come up with the same game-changing display from anyone on their roster. This is why they’re fighting just to stay in the playoffs… not to catch Cleveland at the top of the standings.
Will Thursday’s game definitively show why Toronto will beat Indiana in a possible 2-versus-7 first-round series? That’s something you can debate on your own time.
What’s clear right now: The Raptors and Pacers continue to live on different sides of small margins. It’s the kind of reality which can change in the postseason… but if it does, it will require both teams to change their stripes.
Toronto just won a lot of reassurance and created a substantial measure of stability this season. Indiana won nothing other than a batch of fresh doubts.
The weight of those doubts could be felt in April… especially if these two teams reunite in the playoffs.