TORONTO -- The Indiana Pacers had it under control. Late in the third quarter, rookie big man Myles Turner used every bit of his 7-foot-4 wingspan to finish an alley-oop from star forward Paul George, who had been setting fire to the Air Canada Centre all Tuesday night. It completed an exceptional two minutes for Turner -- just before, he had denied Toronto Raptors guards Norman Powell and DeMar DeRozan at the rim on back-to-back possessions. No one will remember this, though, not after what came next.
With his Pacers leading by 13, Frank Vogel considered changing his rotation heading into the fourth. His bench unit had surrendered an 11-1 run in the second quarter, but the Pacers coach decided to trust it. George looked a little tired, he thought, and they had a comfortable cushion. By the time George came back in, the Raptors had already cut the margin to seven points.
Everybody stood up before Terrence Ross released his 3-point shot with Toronto down by five. Everybody freaked out when it went in. On the next possession, Powell -- a rookie, drafted No. 46 last June -- picked off a pass intended for George, went coast to coast, leapt from just outside the dotted line and threw down a thunderous dunk to tie the game at 92. The roof nearly came off.
"I was thinking, two hands? One hand? Windmill?” Powell said. “I just knew, just dunk it and throw it down as hard as you can with authority 'cause it was going to tie the game. I kind of lost it going up overthinking what I wanted to do, but I was able to finish the play."
DeRozan, maligned during the past week-and-a-half for his poor playoff shooting, made his second 3-pointer of the game to give the Raptors a 95-92 lead. Then he found Cory Joseph for a corner 3 with 3:26 left. Joseph, a Toronto native, said he dreamed of making a play like that for the Raptors when he was a kid. DeRozan finished with 34 points on 10-of-22 shooting.
"People made fun of me 'cause I said I was going to ride with the guys that brought us here, that won us 56 games in the regular season," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “DeMar is an All-Star for a reason. Guys don't forget how to score."
Casey’s pride talking about DeRozan matched his exasperation talking about the game’s final possession. With 2.7 seconds left, in need of a 3-pointer, the Pacers inbounded the ball to George, who was met with a double-team. The Raptors failed to foul him, and he threaded a pass to Solomon Hill, who appeared to tie the game with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. The only question was: did he get it off in time?
The ensuing replay review lasted one minute but felt like an eternity.
Toronto is used to heartbreak. The Raptors have won one first-round series in 21 seasons. Two years ago, they won 48 games and triumphantly returned to the playoffs only to lose Game 7 to the Brooklyn Nets at home. Last season, they won 49 and were swept by the Washington Wizards. When the PA announcer said that Hill's shot was late, there was euphoria. There was also a sense of, did they really win?
They really did, 102-99, and they now have the chance to close out the series on Friday on the road. Toronto scored 21 of the fourth quarter's first 23 points in what was easily the greatest comeback in franchise history.
Before the game, Casey said that he can never sense how his players will perform before the ball is tipped. Sometimes they look fresh and then they’re sluggish. Sometimes they look focused and they lay an egg. “Once they get out on the floor and I see 'em a couple times up and down the floor, I can tell you what kind of night it’s going to be," Casey said.
This time, there were no signs of what would happen until it did. The Pacers had a 17-point lead in the first quarter. Toronto missed 16 of its first 19 3-point attempts. It looked like it might go like Game 4, a 100-83 Pacers victory that was essentially decided in the first quarter.
It took Bismack Biyombo, one of the many Toronto heroes, grabbing seven of his 16 rebounds in the fourth quarter. It took DeRozan and Kyle Lowry getting to the free-throw line like they did in the regular season. It took Powell accepting the challenge of guarding George, who scored only two of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, while the other four defenders played on a string. All that, plus a little bit of luck.
"I kept telling [Joseph], I don’t know how but I know somehow we’re just going to get back into this game,” Biyombo said. “We’re going to [get] some stops and then it was just a little gap, we were looking to find the energy, how can you push the other players to be on the same page with you? It was like a dunk we were looking for, or three points, or one stop. And obviously we got all those things."
Casey hesitated for a second when asked where the comeback came from. He credited the group that was out there in the fourth quarter, a mixture of starters and reserves without a traditional forward. Each of them decided, "I’m tired of getting my butt kicked,” Casey said, and the Raptors exhibited the toughness and defensive focus that he talks about every day. If they wanted things to be different this time, they had no choice.
"This is what you play for,” Casey said. “This is how you make a name for yourself. This is how you build legacies for yourself individually -- in the playoffs. So why hold back?"