Get all of Rohan Nadkarni’s stories as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors are in the Eastern Conference finals.
Buoyed by a dominant Game 7 performance to vanquish the Miami Heat, the Raptors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake.
The hero for Toronto in Game 7 was Kyle Lowry, who scored 35 points to lead all players in a 116–89 home win on Sunday. Miami hung around for most of the game, until the Raptors broke the Heat’s will in the fourth quarter, abusing the small-ball lineup that had unlocked Miami’s offense in Game 6.
The Raptors out-rebounded the Heat 50–30, including 20–7 on the offensive glass. Miami’s defense struggled all game, with the constant switching leaving the Heat’s guards exposed on the glass. Toronto’s aggressiveness manifested itself in a huge advantage at the free-throw line, where the Raptors attempted 43 free throws to Miami’s 23.
The Heat could never break through, seemingly giving up an offensive rebound during every critical possession. Miami’s guards also failed to live up to their previous when-facing-elimination games from earlier this postseason. Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade each had 16 points, with both looking shockingly passive at times. The rest of Miami’s cast did little to make up for the glaring absences of Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh.
Of course, the story was Lowry, who carried a team shooting poorly all playoffs by unleashing his third 30-point game of the series (Lowry is the first Raptors player with back-to-back 35-point games.) The narrative may suggest Lowry fixed his accuracy struggles with a late-night shooting session after a Game 1 loss. In reality, Lowry shot 40.1% for the series, and Game 7 was only his second game in the playoffs shooting more than 50%.
But Lowry did find something in the last three games of the series, particularly at the three-point line, where he shot nearly 60% from Game 5 onward. Lowry flashed his entire game Sunday, hitting threes off the dribble, getting to the line and pushing the ball for easy scores in transition. It was the kind of game Raptors fans had been waiting to see for years, which they now need from Lowry if there’s any chance to topple Cleveland. DeMar DeRozan scored 28 for the Raptors, though he needed 29 field goals and seven free-throw attempts to get there.
Toronto’s season should already be considered a success. The up-and-down playoffs aside, Toronto was not necessarily a popular preseason pick to be this close to a Finals berth. It will have the slimmest of chances against Cleveland with Game 1 starting Tuesday, and hopefully the lack of pressure loosens up the team to play more freely.
A welcome sight in the Eastern Conference finals would be the continued emergence of Bismack Biyombo. The Congolese center was huge for the Raptors after the series-ending ankle sprain to starting center Jonas Valanciunas, controlling rebounds and finishing with aplomb on pick and rolls. If and when Cleveland plays lineups without a traditional center, Biyombo will have to do the same to the Cavaliers what he did to the Heat.
The playoffs are a war of attrition if this Raptors-Heat series proved anything other than how much ugly basketball purists are willing to watch. Toronto outlasted Miami, with the its frontcourt depth ultimately being the difference. But much bigger battles remain for Toronto, who now have to face a rested, hungry and healthy Cavaliers squad.