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Raptors do just enough to take Game 7, reach East semis

Toronto didn't make it look easy against Indiana, but at last it has a long-sought victory in a first-round playoff series

POSTED: May 2, 2016 7:14 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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— Oh, you knew it wouldn't come easy.

And my goodness, the Angst Meter at the Air Canada Centre went from 2 to 10 awfully quickly as a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead was whittled down to 10, and then six. And then, with less than 30 seconds to go, Paul George had the ball in his hands with the Indiana Pacers down just three.

You could imagine Paul Pierce, watching the game on his couch, nodding his head as things were falling apart for the Toronto Raptors, the team he eliminated as a lower seed each of the last two postseasons. For the third straight season, the Raptors set a franchise record for regular-season wins. And for the third straight season, the playoffs exposed their flaws. They were a 56-win team and they were struggling to eliminate the No. 7 seed, a team that couldn't get the ball anywhere near the basket for large chunks of Game 7 on Sunday.

But Pierce wasn't here to block a shot or drain a game-winner. DeMar DeRozan's bump of Ian Mahinmi went uncalled, Mahinmi couldn't handle George's lob pass on the game-deciding possession, and the Raptors escaped with an 89-84 victory in Game 7 of the first round, securing their first playoff series win since 2001 and the first best-of-7 win in franchise history.

It wasn't pretty. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the All-Stars that were supposed to carry the Raptors, combined to shoot less than 32 percent in the series. After Game 4, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said his team would "ride or die" with its starting backcourt. And the Raptors were certainly riding and dying with DeRozan on Sunday.

DeMar wasn't going to beat this team alone and Kyle wasn't going to beat this team alone. It had to be a group effort.

– Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll

They were riding in the first quarter, dying in the second, and riding again in the third. In the fourth, it was more dying, but not enough for the Pacers to crawl all the way back. In a crucial moment late, George stripped DeRozan and looked to have a breakaway, but gave DeRozan enough of a push to be called for an offensive foul before converting a layup.

Ultimately, the Pacers just didn't have enough offense beyond George and George Hill, who combined for 45 points, shooting 7-for-11 from 3-point range. Like DeRozan, they had their highs and lows offensively. And seven fourth-quarter turnovers turned out to be the difference.

"Credit their defense," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "They played really well, they played so hard and they are so well prepared."

It's hard to explain how Toronto won this series. Every game was its own adventure and there was no underlying theme. But improved defense (Toronto went from 23rd to 11th defensive efficiency this season) certainly helped the Raptors put their history behind them when their stars couldn't make shots.

DeRozan finished with 30 points on 32 field goal attempts. In the biggest game of his life, he certainly didn't shy away from the moment. He was more himself -- inefficient as he may be -- than he was in any other game in this series.

"I thought he got his swagger back, his rhythm back a little bit," Casey said, "playing with confidence, not thinking, not dancing around with the ball. He was decisive. That's the way he's got to play. That's the way he's played all year. He and Kyle both are the type of players that can ignite a game for us."

DeRozan got his team off to a good start, and scored 13 points in four minutes in the third, draining pull-up jumpers, getting to the line, and converting a ridiculous spin move around Monta Ellis that tore the roof off the building. It was all of DeMar DeRozan, the good and the bad, in 48 minutes.

"We gonna ride with him emptying that clip," Lowry said of his teammate. "I don't care if he shot 40 times. He emptied the clip and we won, so that's all that matters."

They won because DeRozan got help from teammates who weren't here for the postseason failures of years past. DeMarre Carroll kept George from truly taking the game over. Cory Joseph brought his steadiness and playoff experience in 27 minutes off the bench. And rookie Norman Powell hit huge shots, both early and late.

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri interrupted Casey's postgame news conference to give the coach a kiss on the head. If he had the opportunity, Casey probably would have reciprocated, because the roster tweaks Ujiri made last summer paid off in a big way with the season on the line.

"DeMar wasn't going to beat this team alone and Kyle wasn't going to beat this team alone," Carroll said. "It had to be a group effort."

Still, Lowry and DeRozan will need to be better in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Miami Heat, a team that will test that improved defense a lot more than the Pacers did, is coming to town and Game 1 of the conference semifinals is less than 48 hours away. Sunday was a step forward, or maybe a step back to being the team that won 56 games in the regular season.

Casey was asked if his team could relax now that the weight of 15 years without getting through the first round has been lifted off the Raptors' shoulders.

"I don't know if relaxed is the word I'd use," he said, "but play freer. Play basketball and not worry about the history.

"I don't want them to be relaxed," Casey said, "because we're not done."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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