If they choose, the Pacers can play this as if they have nothing to lose.
They are the lower-seeded team, the underdog, the visiting team, the one in the early stages of a rebuild. Unlike Toronto, which is the higher seed, the home team, the one much further along in its process – and therefore the one with the greater burden of expectation.
The Pacers aren't dodging the unique pressure of playing in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series in Toronto on Sunday, but they readily acknowledge the extra helping of it the Raptors must digest. The Raptors aren't denying it, either.
"The pressure's on both teams," George said after the Pacers' Game 6 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday. "But yeah, there's added pressure on them, being at home, their troubles getting out of the first round. It comes down to who wants it. And we feel good about it."
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Toronto's trouble getting out of the First Round will be on the mind of all its fans in the Air Canada Centre Sunday evening. The Raptors haven't accomplished that since 2001, and failed to do so the past two seasons. They lost Game 7 to Brooklyn two years ago when Kyle Lowry was blocked by Paul Pierce at the buzzer, and didn't come close last season when they were swept by Washington.
A failure to advance this time could alter careers. Toronto holds the option on coach Dwayne Casey's contract for next season, and All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan is a free agent. The possibility of an overhaul isn't out of the question.
"It means everything for us to advance," DeRozan said Friday night. "The season would be a failure if we don't make it out of this First Round. We understand that."
DeRozan, speaking with reporters back in Toronto on Saturday, called it "by far...the biggest game of my career."
DeRozan and Lowry figure to factor heavily into Sunday's outcome, for better or for worse. The Raptors' two All-Stars haven't produced up to their standards, combining to average 30.1 points in the series on 31.5 percent shooting. That's 14 points below their combined regular season scoring average.
Lowry was offered the excuse of a sore elbow by a Toronto media member after Friday's game, but deflected it and passed off credit.
"The Pacers are doing a great job on me, simple as that," he said. "They're all over me, mixing coverages up. They're playing me well. George Hill is playing great defense right now. Their team defense is forcing me into tougher shots."
Lowry has played well in the other aspects of his point guard role, but DeRozan, the shooting guard, has struggled in all but Game 5, when he scored 34 points. He's averaging 15.8 points on 32 percent shooting in the series and hit just 3-of-13 shots on his way to eight points on Friday, mostly because of the defense of Paul George and Solomon Hill.
It's not as if he has a history of postseason fades, however. He averaged 20.3 points in the playoffs last season and 23.9 two years ago.
How will he respond on Sunday? He was asked on Friday.
"You respond like you're supposed to; simple as that," he said. "Everybody loves the game of basketball. You can't make it seem like it's a funeral, it's a chance for us to go out and compete at the highest level. It's an opportunity for us to do it on our home court."
The Pacers can draw from more positive playoff history, Game 7s included, if they dig deeply enough. They are 7-5 all-time in Game 7s dating back to their ABA days, and 4-4 on the road in those games. They won their 1973 championship in a Game 7 at Kentucky, but the more relevant ultimate game to this team occurred two years ago, when they defeated Atlanta, 92-80, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Paul George, George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Solomon Hill, and Lavoy Allen were on that roster, but George and George Hill are the only returning starters from that team. George scored 30 in that game, George Hill 15, Mahinmi had one off the bench, while Solomon Hill and Allen didn't play.
This is a new team, a new situation, a new game. Both teams regard it as a blank slate, an entity unto itself. But it doesn't seem to be one that frightens the Pacers.
"You guys make it more of a big deal than us," Mahinmi said Saturday. "As a player, it's actually one of the easier games, where you just go all out and give everything you have in the tank.
"It's going to be a tough game, but we play this game for those moments. It's a great opportunity for us as a team."
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