As the Toronto Raptors approach Game 7 of their dramatic up-and-down playoff series with the Indiana Pacers, many may be experiencing déjà vu.
The Raptors were in this very position two years ago during their opening-round playoff series with the Brooklyn Nets. They went into that series the higher-seeded team, but struggled to play their best in the post-season. They had a chance to eliminate the Nets in Game 6 on the road, but lost on a Friday night, forcing a Sunday win-or-go-home game at the Air Canada Centre.
That Game 7 has been re-lived repeatedly for two years, especially the heartbreaking vision of Kyle Lowry attempting a game-winning shot with the final seconds ticking off the clock, only to have it stuffed by Paul Pierce. They yearned to win the club's first playoff series since 2001, but they failed in 2014, and they failed again in 2015. Now, coming off a regrettable Game 6 loss and facing another Game 7 at home this Sunday, Lowry says this year's squad is different.
"Me, Demar, JV, TRoss, and Pat were here back then, but it was a different thing," Lowry said after Saturday's practice. "That was young guys against veterans.
"I think I've changed a lot since then," Lowry said. "I understand the game a lot better; understand my mind better, my teammates and coaches. I know it's a big game but the work I've put in, the mindset I have is just do whatever it takes. Just have a mindset of going in to win."
The Raptors had a franchise-record 56-win regular season. They were in position to close out the Pacers on Friday night in Indianapolis, holding a 3-2 series lead with loads of momentum after a memorable come-from-behind victory in Tuesday's Game 5. They appeared to have Game 6 well in hand, until late in the third quarter, when they allowed Indiana to steal it away. There have been wild highs and lows in this series, and Coach Dwane Casey told them to flush those games from their minds.
"I said it in the meeting: push the reset button; flush what's happened in this series," Casey said. "You've got to go out and do what you did for 82 games. You played at a high level; you played to your personality. Don't worry about what's happened in this series."
The Raptors are looking to win just the second playoff series in franchise history. The last time the Raptors advanced in the playoffs was 15 years ago, when Vince Carter and company got past the New York Knicks in the first round before losing in the conference semi-finals to the Philadelphia 76ers.
"It's time to experience a new feeling now – that's the way we have to approach it," DeMar DeRozan said. "It's Game 7. It's what you live for to be in these moments and go out there and have the opportunity and have a new feeling that this franchise hasn't experienced in a while. It's time for us to go out and take advantage of why we have home court advantage."
One of the biggest questions going into Sunday's decisive 8 p.m. game in Toronto is who the Raptors will start. They have started three different lineups in the six games of this series so far. They began the series with the lineup that they used down the stretch of the regular season, including the rookie Norman Powell at small forward. Later in the series, they swapped Powell out for DeMarre Carroll. Then in Games 5 and 6, they shifted out Luis Scola, the team's starting power forward for most of the year, and moved Patrick Patterson into his spot.
If the Raptors win on Sunday, they would advance to the eastern conference semi-finals and face the winner of the series now tied 3-3 between the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. That series would likely begin Tuesday in Toronto.
"I've only experienced [a Game 7] from a losing aspect and that feeling sucks," DeRozan said. "The time after, just to be able to turn on the TV just to watch a basketball game, that part of it sucks and everything that comes with it. Understanding that once we go out there [Sunday] night – that's it; that's how we've got to treat it."