Once again, the Toronto Raptors seemed to have no answers for Paul George. Once again, Dwane Casey's club looked tight and tentative, facing a double-digit deficit entering the fourth quarter and looking to be in real danger of heading back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse needing a win over a confident and comfortable Indiana Pacers team to stave off elimination.
But then, finally, the tide turned ... and in the closing seconds, this time, Toronto got the break for which its fans had been praying.
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After a rampaging fourth-quarter comeback to erase what had been a 17-point Pacer advantage, Toronto held a three-point lead. Monta Ellis' drive for a layup got swallowed up by Raptors reserve Bismack Biyombo, but the Pacers retained possession with 2.7 seconds left, giving them a chance to tie with a 3-pointer ... and they very, very nearly did.
Ellis was able to find George — who had killed the Raptors all night en route to a playoff career-high-tying 39 points — breaking off a Solomon Hill screen on the inbounds. George juked back to his left, creating some space from the defense of Toronto rookie Norman Powell, which prompted Raptors guard Cory Joseph to leap over and try to double the All-Star swingman.
George responded not by taking a shot in traffic, but by shoveling the ball over to Hill — who had just made a right-corner triple to get Indy within one — who was now wide open after Joseph left him. Hill stepped back behind the arc in the left corner, loaded up his shot, sent it up as the horn sounded, and watched it splash through the net, appearing to tie the game at 102 and send the contest to overtime.
The key word, of course, being "appeared."
Replay review confirmed that the ball was still on Hill's fingertips when the clock hit triple-zeroes and the red light around the backboard fired up, meaning Hill's shot came too late to count. That's game. Raptors 102, Pacers 99.
That Hill's shot got off at all represented a failure in execution by the Raptors, according to Casey.
"I got on Norm — he was supposed to foul in that last situation," Casey said during his post-game press conference. "I thought he was reaching, but he didn't grab him. We said, 'If he dribbles, grab him,' and he said he tried to, but he passed it before the officials called it [...] You foul in that situation, you make him shoot two free throws, and it becomes a free-throw game, you do your percentages."
But the rookie couldn't wrap up, leaving Hill with enough room to make the shot ... but, as it turned out, not enough time.
"I was just looking at the shot. I wasn't looking at the clock," said Hill — who finished with 11 points, six rebounds and three made 3s, including one to draw the Pacers within one point at 100-99 with 15 seconds left — after the game. "I knew I was short on time, and I tried to do the best I could with the time I was allowed. You know, if I would have got it off quicker, who knows? Maybe I miss it. It's a give-and-take on both ends, and we tried to do the best we could."
After making all three of his previous triple tries on the night, Hill got the chance to send the game to OT because George responded to all the defensive attention he'd received by deciding not to rise and fire himself.
"It's very tempting," he said after the game. "That's the shots you want. But at the same time, I seen the open man, and it wasn't on me to make the hero shot."
In this instance, though, there wouldn't be any hero.
CoJo on discounted Hill 3, which he blamed himself for: "It was a close one. Saved by the bell, you could call that."— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) April 27, 2016
... or, at least, none wearing a Pacers uniform.
After four straight disappointing performances, and after a week of promising that someday soon the lid would come off the bucket, Raptors All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan exploded for a team-high and career playoff-high 34 points on 10-for-22 shooting in 40 minutes of work. He made 12 of his 13 free throws, including a critical pair with 13 seconds left in the fourth to give Toronto the three-point lead that would stand up as the final margin of victory.
"I knew it was going to come," DeRozan said after the game. "I just kept my composure through these last couple of games. I knew it was going to come. I work too hard for it not to come, and we pulled through it as a team tonight."
Asked what he saw from DeRozan on Tuesday, Casey wasted no time in answering, "A confident player."
"DeMar is an All-Star for a reason," he said. "Guys don't forget how to score, and he did that tonight, and he did it within the rhythm of the offense, within the rhythm of the game — I'll look at it again, but I don't know how many he forced. I think he played his game within the rhythm of the offense, but again, he also brought it on the defensive end, too."
While All-Star backcourt partner Kyle Lowry continued to struggle, scoring 14 points on 3-for-11 shooting to go with five assists, four rebounds and one steal, Casey rolled the dice with a small-ball, bench-heavy lineup in the fourth quarter to try to chop down a 13-point Pacers advantage ... and was rewarded with a 21-2 run (actually, 23-2, if you could a pair of free throws late in the third) fueled largely by big performances from his reserves.
Biyombo scored 10 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and provided exceptional interior defense in helping hold the Pacers to just nine fourth-quarter points. Joseph finished with eight points, three rebounds, two steals, one assist and one block, and made a big 3-pointer with 3:26 remaining to give Toronto a six-point edge.
Powell added 10 points and four rebounds while helping quiet George in the final frame, and snagged a pair of fourth-quarter steals, including one that led to a fast-break dunk that tilted momentum and got the Air Canada Centre rocking:
The Raptors lineups that changed the game — Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Joseph, Biyombo, and the Lowry-Powell-Joseph-Biyombo quarter alongside Terrence Ross when DeMar needed a breather, which outscored Indiana by 16 points in 12 crucial minutes — hadn't shared the floor for a single minute this season. But necessity is the mother of invention, and after watching his club get batted around for three quarters, Casey felt a pretty strong need to start the fourth.
"Getting our butts beat by 15 or whatever it was" inspired the small-ball shift, Casey said after the game. "I thought that we were going to go down with the guys that were swinging — not that the other guys weren't, but that group was giving it to us physically. They were getting into them — what did they score in the fourth quarter, nine points? So they were just scrapping, and that's what this, the playoffs, are about: fight, toughness, want-to."
"To hold an offensive team, the way they were kicking our butt — you know, 35 in the first, 29 in the third — and then to hold them to nine in the fourth is just as amazing and impressive, as far as our defensive end," he added. "Somebody asked the question, 'Where did that come from?' I gotta look at that and we want to bottle that up, because that toughness is what you've got to play with no matter who's in the game, and we've got to use that as an example of how you have to play."
Toronto's comeback gained traction thanks in part to getting a chance to operate against a punchless Indiana unit — Ty Lawson and Rodney Stuckey in the backcourt, Solomon Hill and C.J. Miles on the wing, Ian Mahinmi in the middle — that had been outscored by 12 points at the start of the second quarter, but that Indiana coach Frank Vogel reinserted en masse as an attempt to get George, Ellis and George Hill a breather before the final push.
"I chose to trust those guys," he said. "You know, those guys have been good for us. They had a tough stretch there."
That tough stretch carried over after Vogel got his playmakers back in the game, and it helped scuttle another tremendous effort by George.
As he was in the opening game of the series in Toronto, George was absolutely brilliant and clearly the best player on the floor, making 11 of his 19 shots, including 5-for-11 from 3-point range, to go with eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals, one block and three turnovers in 41 minutes. He's just the 15th player since 1984 to go for 39-8-8 in a playoff game, according to Basketball-Reference.com, joining Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Brad Daugherty, Clyde Drexler, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Rajon Rondo.
But he'd done the bulk of that work through three quarters, including a dominant third in which he scored 15 points and got himself to the line eight times. By the end of three, he'd played 32 1/2 minutes, and Vogel believed he needed a rest.
"He looked pretty gassed at the end of the third," Vogel said. "We had a decent lead that I thought we could hold up. That lead stayed around 11, I think, until around the nine-minute mark, and then we were ready to get him back in."
George, as you might expect, acknowledged fatigue, but didn't sound quite the same note as his coach: "Yeah, but it wasn't enough to keep me from not being ready and prepared in the fourth."
Outside of rookie center Myles Turner (14 points, 7-for-10 shooting, eight rebounds, three blocks, one assist) and guard George Hill (15 points, 4-for-7 from 3-point land, three assists, two rebounds, one steal, one block), George just didn't have much help, especially during a fourth quarter in which Indiana shot just 4-for-15 as a team, went more than five minutes between baskets in the middle of the quarter, and committed six turnovers leading to 10 Raptors points.
After the game, George offered a less-than flattering assessment of the level of assistance he received in the late stages of the fourth.
• "I think our guys, individually, know that they have to bring it," he said. I'm not about putting guys down or putting teammates down, but individually, everybody has to bring it. [...] It's another level that [the second unit's] got to take it to."
• "It's awful to have a chance to win on the road, go up 3-2, come back ... but no, once again, we failed to live up that moment and we've got to do it in Game 6."
• "I thought we played a little nervous, a little tight, on our heels and we just didn't finish. We didn't finish around the basket well enough, we didn't see the open guys when they helped. I think, to look at it as a whole, we just played tight."
Indiana's inability to complete simple passes or hit open shots allowed Toronto get back into the game; Hill's inability to get the ball up just a tenth of a second faster allowed the Raptors to escape with a thrilling come-from-behind win that fundamentally changes the complexion of the series.
"One frame shy of being a tie game going to overtime," Vogel said.
Now, instead of the Pacers flying back to the States with a chance to close out on their home court, Toronto will travel to Bankers Life for Friday's Game 6 seeking its first trip to the second round of the playoffs since 2001. Sometimes, the smallest difference makes all the difference in the world.
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