The Toronto Raptors' Game 5 Comeback May Have Saved the Franchise
The Toronto Raptors are not exactly what you'd call a storied franchise.
21 seasons of existence, eight playoff appearances, and only once have they even made it to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The last two seasons, they went into the postseason with a new franchise record for regular season wins, only to lose in the first round to an under-seeded team.
This year -- with yet another franchise record for wins with 56 -- the Raptors entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's 2 seed (their highest seed ever) and with a 65.97% chance of taking down the Indiana Pacers, according to our algorithms. Despite being favorites for the third year running, they were once again found with their backs against the wall in last night's Game 5.
The series was tied 2-2 going into last night's showdown. The Raptors looked every bit the better team in this series in Games 2 and 3 but were embarrassed on their home floor in Game 1 and demolished in Game 4 in Indiana, a game in which they did not hold the lead for a single second.
In Game 5, the Pacers were once again on their way to exposing the Raptors' tendency to wilt in the playoffs, leading from the opening tip onward through the game's first three quarters. The Pacers led by as much as 17 in the opening frame and were up 90-75 in the dying seconds of the third with a win probability of 80.65%.
From there, the Raptors dug down deep and pulled off arguably the most memorable and important quarter in team history.
Toronto rattled off a miraculous 23-2 run between the point where there were 34 seconds left in the third until there was 2:43 left in the fourth. The run can partially be attributed to Indiana head coach Frank Vogel's decision to play a lineup devoid of Paul George, George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Myles Turner to start the fourth quarter, but most of the credit goes to Raptors head coach Dwane Casey's choice to get incredibly funky with his lineups to counter.
Toronto started the final frame with a lineup that included Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Terrence Ross, and Bismack Biyombo. That five-man unit, one that technically features Terrence Ross as a power forward, did not play together for a single second all season or in the playoffs to date. It outscored the Pacers 11-2 in four and a half minutes of action.
Shortly after Paul George subbed back in for the Pacers, DeMar DeRozan replaced Terrence Ross on the floor for the Raptors to form another lineup that the team had never used, and coach Casey rode it the rest of the way out.
The DeRozan version of that unit would go on a 10-0 run to make the score 98-92 for the Raptors with 2:43 to go (their first lead since Game 3), swinging the win probability from 80.65% in favor of the Pacers at the end of the third to 90.00% in favor of the Raptors with fewer than three minutes to go.
The two teams would then trade blows down to the final buzzer, when a Solomon Hill three-pointer was waved off for being on his fingertips a fraction of a second too long, resulting in a 102-99 Raptor victory and a 3-2 series lead in their favor.
Paul George was dominant, scoring 39 points on 11-for-19 shooting from the field (including 5-for-11 from long range), and adding 8 rebounds and 8 assists, but it's worth mentioning, that he managed to score only 2 of those 39 in the fourth, when rookie Norman Powell stuck to him like glue and held him to a mere 1-for-3 from the field.
Put simply, everything about that funky lineup for the Raptors went right in the fourth, from the scoring (25-9 in the frame) to the defense (all 15 of the Pacers' shots were contested, according to NBA.com/stats) to the energy (10 Raptor points off 5 Pacers turnovers, compared to 0 off 0 the other way).
So, that one quarter and one imaginative lineup (with two iterations) resulted in the greatest postseason comeback in Raptor history:
the Raptors made the largest playoff comeback in their franchise history to gain a 3-2 series edge vs the Pacers pic.twitter.com/UlcEZ9fFLW
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 27, 2016
And the impact of that win goes beyond just having a 3-2 series lead.
A third straight year of being ousted by an under-seeded team in the playoffs? That would've meant that the team's core of coach Dwane Casey, All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and promising young big man, Jonas Valanciunas, would almost certainly have been broken up.
The team has made great progress in the last three years, improving their regular season record in each, but a third-straight upset would make the fanbase rabid and likely force general manager Masai Ujiri's hand in personnel decisions this coming summer.
The Raptors are not out of the woods yet, but they are a whole lot closer to their first opening-round victory in a decade and a half than they would've been had that fourth quarter never happened and they had lost. And, with that, they are a whole lot closer to staying together.
With the 3-2 advantage, our algorithms give the Raptors an 81.67% chance of winning the series, with the most likely scenario being that they close it out in Game 6 in Indiana on Friday night (43.93%).
If the Pacers had held on for the win last night? It would be the Pacers that would have had a 69.33% of beating the Raptors -- an outcome that would almost certainly spell the end for these Raptors as we know them.
What a difference a mere 12 minutes can make.