TORONTO -- This time, Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri saved his best one-liner, which of course featured an expletive, for the end of the series.
“Where’s that f---ing monkey?” a euphoric Ujiri exclaimed repeatedly outside the team’s locker room.
After nearly 15 years, the monkey is finally off of the organization’s back. For the first time since May 4, 2001 -- a span of 5,476 days -- the Raptors have advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
“There’s no hiding it,” Kyle Lowry told ESPN.com. “It was one of those wins where, if we had lost this game, the season would’ve been a failure. It’s kind of harsh to say that, but if we had lost this game, it would’ve been the end of the season. The pressure of the first round is off of us.”
The Indiana Pacers took Toronto to the limit in Game 7 on Sunday at Air Canada Centre, and the Raptors nearly blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead before hanging on to win 89-84 and avoid a third consecutive first-round exit as the favored team.
“I think everybody wrote the Raptors off and gave us up for dead, but that locker room is full of fighters and scrappers and guys that are really getting into it now,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “I read some of the stuff, not only here but around the country, about how Indiana was going to win and we weren’t going to get through this, and I loved that because our guys used it as motivation, used it as fuel to fight and to scrap.”
The pressure the team faced to deliver this victory had mounted significantly. Another letdown could’ve been catastrophic. The city needed it. The nation needed it. The franchise needed it.
This time, it didn’t end the way die-hard fans of this team have come to expect.
“I hear so many people talking about the Toronto curse and all this, but if you play basketball, and you play it at a high level, I told plenty of fans and media that this was a different team,” Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll said. “We have a different mindset. This is a team that’s going to go out and leave it all on the court, and that’s what we did tonight.”
DeMar DeRozan needed a franchise playoff-record 32 shots to score 30 points, and Lowry finished the series 7-for-43 from 3-point territory, but Toronto’s All-Star backcourt made crucial plays when it mattered most.
With their team’s lead slipping away and 20,669 panicked supporters saying, "Here we go again," DeRozan took a critical charge from Paul George late in the fourth. Lowry would drive for a left-handed layup with 2:10 remaining to put the Raptors ahead 87-82. And it was DeRozan again, who hit two clutch free throws with six seconds left that finally sealed the game.
“I was just being aggressive,” said Lowry, who played with a banged up right elbow and shot just 31.6 percent in the series. “My teammates count on me, you know that. My teammates love me, and they support me, no matter what I do. No matter what happens, they’re always going to be there, and they’re never going to doubt me, so I just wanted to be aggressive and do what I know how to do, which is get to the hole.”
DeRozan, who connected on 31.9 percent of his attempts during the series, was shooting with volume the way Kobe Bryant did in his 60-point retirement game. Only this was a playoff Game 7. He missed nine of 10 shots before scoring 13 points in the third quarter to give Toronto a lead it didn’t relinquish, despite how the team played not to lose down the stretch.
“He was going to empty the clip,” Lowry said of DeRozan, who scored just eight points in Toronto’s 18-point loss in Game 6. “That’s what he did tonight, and that’s what his goal was. We are going to ride with him emptying that clip. I don’t care if he shot it 40 times. He emptied the clip, and we won, so that is all that matters.”
The Raptors were ahead 83-67 with 7:31 remaining before the Pacers countered with a 15-2 run to take the air out of the building. Toronto scored just 11 points in the fourth, the fewest by any team to win a Game 7 in the shot-clock era.
Asked what was going through his mind at the time, Lowry said, “Every four-letter word that is not allowed to be written. But we knew they were going to make a push, and we knew they were going to come out aggressive. We just had to keep our composure. We didn’t do a good job of that, but we kept grinding, and we kept going.”
It was a team effort. Rookie Norman Powell was unfazed throughout the series and finished with 13 points and three 3-pointers. Cory Joseph had eight points and four assists. Bismack Biyombo grabbed 11 rebounds. Patrick Patterson had 11 points. Jonas Valanciunas added 15 rebounds, and Carroll hounded George as best he could defensively all series.
The Raptors had just nine turnovers and outrebounded the Pacers 49-38.
George was far and away the best player in the series, with averages of 27.3 points and 7.6 rebounds, but when it came to players 1 through 10, Toronto had the edge in depth.
After losing a 3-2 series lead to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 and getting swept by the Washington Wizards in 2015, the Raptors needed this game. The futures of Casey (team option) and DeRozan (unrestricted free agent) might have depended on it. None of that matters now.
After it was over, Ujiri, who was fined by the NBA the past two postseasons for using expletives while addressing fans in Jurassic Park before the Brooklyn and Washington series, was embracing the musician Drake and kissing Casey on the forehead at the podium. The team celebrated on the court with owner Larry Tanenbaum. All of the franchise’s past failures are history now.
“It means a lot. It means the elephant in the room is gone, the monkey is off our back,” Lowry said. “It’s funny. We say that it means a lot, but Cory made a good point: It’s kind of what we were supposed to do. And that’s not discredit to Indy at all. We were the No. 2 seed, and they took us to the limit and had a chance to win the game and win the series. Now we have to continue to focus on getting better.”
Despite the significance of the win, this celebration figures to be a short one. A binder with the scouting report on the Miami Heat sat on a chair at each of the Raptors players’ lockers.
After this emotional high and getting over the hump, it will be interesting to see how much the Raptors have left in the tank.
“We were just going to leave it all out there, whatever we had, from the beginning to the end,” DeRozan said. “That’s how all the guys played tonight.”