The conversation was supposed to be simple: If the Toronto Raptors won their first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, their demons would be eliminated. They would have proven that their first-round defeats of the past two years had a purpose, to push them to work harder, reflect seriously and propel them to accomplishments more impressive than Atlantic Division championship banners.
If they lost, it would have proven that this team was fundamentally flawed. It would have showed that their two offensive fulcrums were not quite stars, that the coach was a wonderful program builder who could not go shot for shot tactically in a playoff series, and that something serious needed to change. There sure as hell did not seem like there could be a middle ground, a result that was something less than declarative.
This was supposed to be a referendum, one that delivered a simple "yes" or "no" on the Raptors as they currently exist. Instead, this was the 1995 Québec referendum, the one in which the side that did not want to separate from the rest of Canada won with just 50.6 percent of the vote. This, like that, defied black-or-white answers. This was complicated.
The seven-game slog was consistently weird, so why not a weird conclusion? Those looking for a reckoning one way or the other instead received nothing definitive. All we can say for sure is that 48 minutes came and went on Sunday, and the Raptors had somehow survived and advanced with an 89-84 victory. The Raptors played a fourth quarter nearly as bad as the one as Indiana played in Game 5—the frame that Pacers fans will circle to explain the series defeat—and moved on to play Miami.
"We stunk it up in the fourth quarter," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Someone asked about my heart rate. I don't know if we ran out of gas. Those guys are so jacked up emotionally to start the game, we go through the game and I thought we ran out of gas."
At least they made it to within reach of the first pump at the station.
The overwhelming emotion that followed the win was relief, and that was not a surprise. General manager Masai Ujiri and global ambassador Drake waited in the area just outside the Raptors locker room in the moments following the game, waiting for erstwhile all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to finish their postgame media commitments.
Long hugs were shared. Ujiri later interrupted Casey's press conference to kiss him on the top of the head. Ujiri had made noise about the result of the series not affecting the team's future all that much, and that might be true, as he has stockpiled enough draft picks and assets to give the Raptors a possible future beyond Lowry's prime. For the four most important men in this organization at the moment—Ujiri, Casey, DeRozan and Lowry—they needed this win to ensure this incarnation of the team would continue.
Really, this was a win about the team Ujiri has built around those two offensive stars, and the defensive mindset that Casey has preached that allowed the Raptors to stay afloat as they collectively lost their minds on the other end. Cory Joseph was the most consistent Raptor in the whole series, and his eight-point, four-assist stat line from Game 7 falls well short of explaining overall impact.
Bismack Biyombo is as big of a part of the Raptors' defensive rebirth as there is, and he was essential as the Pacers threatened to take advantage of Jonas Valanciunas' mobility issues. The two centres were massive, as the Raptors' 17-3 advantage in second-chance points, necessary given the struggles of their primary options, was largely a result of their ten combined offensive rebounds. Patrick Patterson was finally himself as a starter, knocking in a trio of 3-pointers in addition to finishing with the game's highest plus-minus, and Casey likely needs to find a way to play him for more than the 23 minutes he got in Game 7.
And then there is Norman Powell, the second-round rookie who is pretty much a movement unto himself at this point.
"I think the intensity, the way Norm plays, it doesn't matter who he's playing against, where he's playing at," Lowry said of Powell, and his defence on Paul George. "He's going to be physical. He's going to be always touching, always going to be keeping a hand on him."
"I even told him after the game," DeRozan said, "that man has a hell of a heart."
The coach and the two stars had their moments in this series. Casey kept DeRozan on the bench at the end of Game 2, found a lineup that worked in the Game 5 miracle and finally gave Powell nearly all of the minutes of the all-but-absent Terrence Ross on Sunday. Lowry shot 31.6 percent from the field, but made massive plays in all of their wins, including a driving layup and a drawn charge in the final minutes of Game 7. DeRozan took an absurd 32 field-goal attempts on Sunday—he "emptied his clip," said Lowry—but a lot of them were the product of the Raptors' wayward offence and the limited options he was working with. Any and all offence was necessary on this night, and DeRozan's first and third quarter spurts were crucial.
Still, questions will, and should, linger about all three. Why does the team's offence, ranked in the top five in each of the last two regular seasons, seem to fall apart in the postseason? Is Lowry's hesitation to shoot, never more evident than in Game 7, entirely a product of his injured elbow or do the playoffs unnerve him? Will DeRozan ever know when to say enough is enough with his shot attempts?
In his press conference, Casey came out swinging at the media, talking about how nobody expected the Raptors would win Game 7.
"I think everybody wrote the Raptors off, and gave us up for dead," he said. "But that locker room is full of scrappers and fighters."
The conversation Casey is talking about never really happened. If there was skepticism, the previous three games stood in as reasonable cause. The Raptors were still strong favourites in Las Vegas to win the game. Casey later said that he wanted his team to use the doubters as, in his words, "motivation." It makes sense as a tactic: The Raptors were the heavy favourites to win this series before it started, justifiably given the way the regular season played out, and they had the most to lose by losing, accordingly. They often played like it. This team tracks better as an underdog.
"Yes, our players are going to play free," Biyombo said of the series against the Heat. "Honestly, before you come into a game like this you probably get hundreds of text messages of people telling you what happened in the past years. The big thing for us was if we finish second in the East, the right way to finish this series is to move on to the next round and go as far as we can."
Improbably, the big-picture questions still circle around the Toronto Raptors. Remarkably, despite the bordering-on-epic struggles of their stars, they still have a chance to answer them in a positive manner, which is kind of the point. Massive relief is a kind of joy, if not the pure, unfiltered thing.