In the end, the 2015-16 Indiana Pacers were who we suspected they were all along.
Paul George and not enough else.
How Indiana's NBA season ended Sunday night shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, considering George carried his team with the best playoff series of his career, but it wasn’t enough as the second-seeded Toronto Raptors sent the seventh-seeded Pacers home with an 89-84 Game 7 triumph at Air Canada Centre.
The Raptors built a 16-point lead before the Pacers rallied late. The Blue & Gold showed some heart in battling back, making it a three-point game on two occasions in the final minutes. Their last chance was with the Raptors clinging to an 87-84 lead and 26.9 seconds remaining.
George lobbed a pass inside for center Ian Mahinmi, who was shoved in the back by Demar DeRozan without a call. That became George’s seventh turnover of the game, an obvious missed call by the referees. The Raptors hit two foul shots and closed it out.
“It sucks,” Pacers point guard George Hill said of coming up short.
The Pacers tried to squeeze every last ounce of basketball out of George, their three-time All-Star, who was obviously tired at the end of a 46-minute night and committed some costly turnovers late. He finished with a team-high 26 points as well as 12 rebounds, Hill had 19 points and Monta Ellis scored 15, but the Pacers didn’t have enough scoring balance from others.
George tweeted: "Gave you my heart Indy!"
In his postgame televised interview, posted on the Pacers' Twitter page, George said, "I play this game the only way I know how to play -- to play hard and leave everything on the floor. ... I played with nothing but heart."
To be honest, the Pacers put themselves in that precarious position late. They didn’t play solid defense for three quarters and were unable to make up the difference in a furious comeback.
“It’s hard trying to fight back against a team like that,” Ellis said. “We were doing it, but we came up short.”
This one became ugly, and that’s why the Raptors endured.
If anything, DeRozan willed his team to victory. He was hot early and kept shooting. The All-Star guard didn’t stop even when missing more than he made, in keeping with his inconsistent offensive performance throughout the series. Ugly but effective, DeRozan stayed aggressive and looked to score every chance he got, which is what Toronto needed for more than half of this game, as he finished with a game-high 30 points on 10-of-32 shooting.
Not locking him down was the most obvious reason the Pacers lost. But even with DeRozan scoring, the Pacers hung around for a half. They trailed just 50-44 at intermission. Pacers reserve guard Rodney Stuckey played well for the second straight game with nine points as the bench didn’t completely fall apart like in Game 5.
When the Raptors finally shared the ball better and other players needed to step up, they did. Patrick Patterson hit three third-quarter threes. Cory Joseph hit a couple threes in the final quarter, the second giving Toronto its largest lead at 83-67. Guard Norman Powell contributed 13 points off the bench.
When the Pacers needed other players to step up, they didn’t. Pacers rookie forward Myles Turner struggled, yet kept shooting anyway, missing nine of his 11 attempts. Mahinmi, who scored a career playoff high 22 points in a Game 4 home win, managed just six points and four rebounds. He was outplayed in every game but Game 4 by Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, who had 10 points and 15 rebounds.
Pacers reserve forward Solomon Hill, whose 3-pointers and steady play off the bench had been a big boost, didn’t have it this night, either, missing three of the five shots he attempted.
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel was accurate with his assessment that his team could play with the Raptors. The Pacers did. They pushed Toronto to the limit.
Asked if George ran out of gas after playing 46 minutes, Vogel said, “That’s always your concern. Game 7, you’ve got to play. He knew that. He went out there and competed and I couldn’t be more proud of all our guys, how far we came this season.”
But if Vogel was also correct in assessing his Pacers were playing their best basketball of the season at the most important time, this team’s best wasn’t good enough. And to be honest, the Pacers didn’t play their best in this final game of the season. They played one strong final quarter.
The Raptors, who won a franchise-record 56 regular-season games, celebrated their first seven-game playoff series win. They shared the ball better with 21 assists to the Pacers’ 12. They outrebounded the Pacers 49-38 in the game and 383-322 for the series. DeRozan aside, the Raptors had four other scorers in double digits.
Toronto overcame George and the Pacers more so because of Indiana’s inefficiencies than the Raptors’ strengths. Toronto managed just 11 points in being outscored by nine in the final quarter. They almost blew this one.
“We stunk it up in the fourth quarter,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said.
The Pacers will undoubtedly look back at Game 5 in Toronto, where they led by 13 entering the final quarter but imploded in losing 102-99. They should have won that game. And if so, this series doesn’t reach a seventh game.
“Giving up one in Game 5 really hurt us,” Hill said.
Should’ve, could’ve, but it doesn’t matter now.
“We didn’t put in enough to come up with this win,” Ellis said.
Moving forward, this season proved George could return from his broken leg and continue his evolution as one of the NBA’s best players. He averaged a career-best 23.1 points in the regular season then a league-best 27.3 points in this series.
"At the end of the day, we had a good year," George said. "The group's going to get better, it's going to learn, we're going to figure things out."
The 20-year-old Turner offered promise for the future as he earned himself a starting spot later in the season and in this series. He’ll develop and be a more dominant inside presence. The kid has a bright future.
But the Pacers need to be stronger inside, so George isn’t forced to carry the load every time. Pacers president Larry Bird will undoubtedly address the obvious shortcoming in the offseason. The season started with the Pacers unveiling an up-tempo, spread offense. When that bogged down, they reverted to a lineup with a stronger inside presence. But it wasn’t strong enough. Not in the end.
“We remade our franchise this year,” Vogel said, “completely recreated an identity, worked through several shifts this season. We played our best basketball down the stretch when it mattered, and played a great series and hung in there and fought until the end.”
Still, it wasn’t enough. And it didn’t come as a shock. The better team defeated the best player.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.