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Pressure mounts for Raptors after missing chance to close

Lowry, DeRozan must shake slump in Game 7 at home on Sunday

POSTED: Apr 30, 2016 1:00 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Raptors vs. Pacers: Game 6

Paul George heats up for 21 points with 11 rebounds as the Pacers take Game 6, 101-83.

— Eleven. Then 13. Then 12. That, finally, was number on which the Toronto Raptors' postgame dressing room settled for several minutes in the aftermath of their 101-83 loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the teams' first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.

A dozen Toronto players sat at their stalls in various stages of icing and undress, silent, heads down, thumbs scrolling, noses stuck in a big-box store worth of high-tech, international-plan smartphones. As if they actually might find the answers they're so desperately seeking in those pretty, shiny objects.

It's the way of the modern NBA world, though. No tables in the visitors' room had been toppled Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Nothing had been upended or shredded or smashed in the first 15 minutes after, nor would anything be.

The Raptors hadn't just squandered a chance to achieve something special for their franchise and themselves -- advancing to the second round of the playoffs by winning a best-of-seven series -- they had blown a chance to duck pressure that's going to grow heavier and more daunting over the next 48 hours.

So they rifled through their phones instead of raging over their failure, checked out social media and texts in search of support from family, friends and agents -- maybe even a little buffered criticism -- rather than challenging each other.

Yet Toronto's fault lay not in the phones but in themselves.

And, well, yeah, actually, in their stars too.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry played in the All-Star Game in February right there in Toronto, in front of their devoted and knowledgeable Raptors fans. They have been considered, at least this season, to be the NBA's second-best starting backcourt behind only Golden State's (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson). They averaged 44.7 points, 10.4 assists and 9.2 rebounds this season, making 37.7 percent of their 3-pointers and shooting 43.7 percent overall.

Through six games in this round, though, DeRozan and Lowry are giving Toronto 30.1 ppg -- a drop steeper than the Raptors have experienced overall (from 102.7 in the regular season to 92.8 now). Even allowing for the traditional tightening of the defensive screws that occurs in the postseason, that's an alarming decline in production.

It doesn't end there. The Toronto tandem are combining for 10.0 assists and 7.5 rebounds, while shooting a combined 31.6 percent. From the arc? They've made nine of their 52 tries, 17.3 percent. And in a game that will define them, at least until Sunday night, as something shy of clutch playoff performers, DeRozan and Lowry scored a total of 18 points on 7-of-27 shooting (1-of-8 on 3-pointers). They managed eight rebounds and 11 assists -- Lowry had 10 -- before watching the final 3:27 from the bench.

That's how badly things had gotten out of hand. Just when it seemed as if the Pacers would be the team haunted all the way into the offseason by their vertigo-inducing plummet in the final quarter of Game 5, the Raptors wrested that trauma away with a meltdown in the second half Friday so complete it might cost them two games.

"The Pacers are doing a great job on me," said Lowry, dismissing a life preserver thrown his way that a lingering elbow injury might be to blame. "They're all over me. They mix their coverages up. Give them credit, they're playing me well and George Hill [is] playing good defense. Give them credit for team defense, it's eliminating me."

Said DeRozan on the predicament and pressure now: "We play this game. Everybody loves the game of basketball. You make it seem like a funeral. [Game 7 is] a chance for us to compete at the highest level."

So was Game 6, until it wasn't. However befuddled Indiana looked as its 15-point lead vanished late in the third Wednesday night when it managed only nine points over the final 12 minutes, that's how thoroughly the Raptors unraveled in this one.

Delighted with their start (a quick 14-4 lead) and encouraged when they rallied to within 65-64 to recover from a poor stretch after halftime, the Raptors hit a wall when they stopped hitting shots. Their misses at one end led to misdeeds at the other, and the inability to at least muck up Indiana with some reliable defense was more galling -- for the absence of effort and tenacity it revealed -- than the scoring sputters.

How bad was it? From 65-64 with 1:49 left in the third, Toronto got outscored 32-5 over the game's next 10 minutes 40 seconds. The Pacers were terrific, from Paul George's work at both ends to Monta Ellis' rollercoaster impact to double-digit scoring from all five starters. But that swoon the Raptors endured -- and fueled themselves, to hear them tell it -- was the sort of thing that eradicated dinosaurs from the planet entirely.

And maybe from these playoffs, pending Game 7 and a serious response.

"We just worry about us," said forward Patrick Patterson, a grown-up in the Raptors room. "Have a nice long conversation amongst ourselves. See how bad we want this. See how bad we want to advance to the next round. Each and every one of us needs to step up. Own up to our mistakes, own up to what we need to do more to get wins, individually and collectively as a team. And just go out and do it. A will to win -- we've got to have that."

The steam rising from the back of coach Dwane Casey's and his staff's necks Friday showed how disappointed, disgusted even, by the ease with which the players rolled over. Whether they were waiting for the next man to fix things or relying too readily on having home court in Game 7 tucked into their pockets, it was a bad look leading to a precarious position.

Toronto shot 6-of-18 in the third quarter, 7-of-18 in the fourth. Indiana in that second half was 21 of 33. It's hard to play defense when your more focused on your own poor shooting moments ago than on what your man is doing right now .

"You could easily tell," Patterson said. "We just have to get out of that funk. We have to realize that all shots aren't going to go in. We have to realize that we can't let our offense dictate our defense. No matter how many shots we miss -- if we miss five shots in a row or turn over the ball five times in a row -- we can't let that affect our defense."

It figures to be a different Indiana team that shows up at Air Canada Centre Sunday, compared to the one that slinked out the last time.

"The team that we faced from the five-minute mark of the first quarter to when the buzzer went off is the team I assume we're going to face in Game 7," Patterson said. "They have 100 percent confidence within themselves. They have no doubt on their team. They have a great leader in Paul George. So we know it's going to be a battle -- a lot tougher than all six of these games combined."

The fans in Toronto will be rooting Sunday for their team not to lose, the franchise's threadbare playoff history all too familiar (the Raptors are 0-2 in Game 7 situations, losing by a single point in getting eliminated in 2001 and 2014).

The team that shows up to face the Pacers next time, meanwhile, can't bear any resemblance to the one cratered in the second half. Or they'll carry that around for the next six months.

"We have to have a long, hard look in the mirror at ourselves and realize what basketball team we want to be," Patterson said. "Do we want to be the team that won 56 games? Do we want to be the team that got two All-Stars to the All-Star Game, all the accolades, set new records, went on long winning streaks, played great defense in the first half of the season? Or do we want to be this team that's come to Indiana the past two times and got blown out of the water?

"We have to decide which team we want to be. And that's it."

Getting called out by one of their own, tough as that might be, may prove a lot more helpful than blinking into a 5-inch screen to see who called.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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