“The mood’s not good. we’re not happy. We’re a little pissed off, and we should be,” said Nick Nurse after the Toronto Raptors crushing defeat to the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“We’re not proud of anything we did [in Game 1]. So you gotta live through that until you get another chance… You’ve gotta make it better. You’ve gotta make it OK,” he continued.
Unfortunately, the fashion in which the Raptors lost Game 2 couldn’t have made their locker room any less glum. After leading by 11 points late in the third quarter, coming off a successful coaches challenge by Nick Nurse, the Celtics bounced back massively, and in a hurry.
Marcus Smart made good on a barrage of three pointers from all around the court – whether with a hand in his face, uncontested, off the dribble, off the catch, or even with the 6’8 OG Anunoby flying into his body and fouling him, he simply could not miss.
What made the comeback even more crumbling, and the eventual loss even more painful, is that Marcus Smart was an improbable candidate to bring the Celtics back into the game. Known for his versatile defense and grittiness, the Oklahoma product is the second last player among Boston’s starters who should be making those shots. On a roster loaded with the likes of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, it was their sixth man who shot 34.7% from deep on the season who revived them. Seemingly, however the Raptors defended Smart, it was Toronto’s destiny to lose that game.
Following a loss in which the Raptors played some of their best basketball – on the defensive side of the floor, at least – for 42 out of 48 minutes, and dropped the ball to an unsung hero’s unlikely heroics, the morale in the Raptors locker room was at an all-time low after Game 2. The team shot like garbage for the second time in a row, they had a chance to tie the series, and all of a sudden, data would say that the Raptors’ season was over with an 80% chance.
If Toronto dropped their next game, that 80% would rise up to 100%, based on historical data. After two games, many were ready to call the Celtics the better team, which speaks volumes given that Boston finished 5.0 games behind Toronto in a shortened regular season, and was now missing their fourth best player due to injury, in Gordon Hayward. The narratives surrounding the remainder of the series stated that the Raptors would need to try two times harder, and shoot 10% better in any remaining games to have a chance of winning the series. Even then, winning four of the next five games against a team led by Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker would be tough.
Tough is how the Raptors like it though. Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
After another abysmal shooting night in Game 3, Toronto found themselves right in the thick of the contest with less than a minute left (thanks to one Kyle Lowry). After trailing by ten at halftime, it was Toronto’s inspired defense, and relentless ability to pound the ball in the paint, and force the ball into the hoop when shots weren’t falling that kept them in the game.
It was Toronto’s ball, down two, with 39 seconds remaining in the game.
Fred VanVleet’s pulled a contested deep three-pointer to go for a two-for-one, which bricked off the back iron with 31 seconds left in the game. After the miss, it looked like the game would turn into a fouling spree, which rarely ends well for the trailing team.
Then OG Anunoby soared in for a rebound on the weakside over Jaylen Brown. Teh Raptors had a chance. Their hopes were still alive. 14 seconds remained on the shot clock. 27 remained on the game clock. With Boston’s defense scrambling, Anunoby kicked the ball out to VanVleet again at the timeline, who was gifted with a mismatch on the 6’10 Daniel Theis. The former German League Defensive Player of the Year couldn’t hang with Toronto’s sub-six-foot guard, as VanVleet blew by with an in-and-out dribble, and finished a ridiculous reverse layup inside the paint before falling onto his back.
Tie game. 101-101. Shot clock off. 21.5 seconds remained. Boston basketball.
Kemba Walker brought the ball across the timeline and held until there were 9 seconds left. Marcus Smart came to set a high brush screen and flashed to the opposite 45, while Kemba dribbled across to the other side of court and was met with a double team of VanVleet and Marc Gasol. Walker was able to dribble between Gasol’s hip and the sideline before weaving his way into the key where he was met with the hyper Kyle Lowry. 2.2 seconds remained in the game.
Daniel Theis was open under the basket. Jaylen Brown was open in the corner. Pascal Siakam had to guard both of them. After eyeing his swingman in the corner and sending Pascal Siakam’s feet that way, Walker threaded a bounce pass into the paint and found Theis for a slam dunk, which tore down Raptors fans happiness along with it. The Celtics led by 2. There was half a second left in the game. The odds of the Raptors coming back were so asymptotically low that most betting sites would have taken the game off the board. Heck, even CP24 jumped the gun and claimed to Torontonians not watching the game that the Raptors were down 3-0.
CP24 with some suspect reporting followed by a moment for the ages pic.twitter.com/TmOBKHpoig
— Raptors Cage (@RaptorsCage) September 4, 2020
The hearts of Raptors fans sank as the memories of LeBron hitting his game winning floater over OG Anunoby swam back into our minds. Not even the comfort of being a reigning NBA Champion was enough to make fans feel better in this moment. The Raptors gave it everything that they had for the second game in a row, and the basketball gods snatched away what should have been a win from them.
Or did they?
Half a second still remained on the clock, and like they say, it’s not over until it’s over.
Brad Stevens almost trolled the Raptors by checking his 7’5 rookie into the game. The tallest player in the NBA, and one of the tallest people on the planet was guarding Kyle Lowry’s inbound pass. Getting the ball in was virtually impossible. The chances of getting a shot off were even slimmer. The chances of making that shot? Forget about it.
OG Anunoby had other plans though.
While the play that Nick Nurse drew up was designed for Fred VanVleet, the Boston Celtics zoned up and denied him hard. It looked like Marc Gasol was the team’s second option, flashing to the basket for a potential tip-in, but the 220 pound Jaylen Brown pushed him out of the paint, disallowing his team to lose on any mere layup.
Luckily, Jayson Tatum was sleeping on the play, and Anunoby recognized it. OG ran from one corner to the other and found himself wide open. Somehow, someway, Kyle Lowry threw a perfect pass across the court, over the outstretched arms of Tacko Fall, and found Anunoby right in his shooting pocket. OG didn’t have to dip, or reach to make the catch. He simply found the ball in his hands, with five feet of space, and let it fly with an awkward release as Jaylen Brown desperately tried to close out.
As OG shot the ball, he may have known it was going in, but he was the only soul of nearly 8 billion who did. The hearts of Raptors fans hung in the air. There was a real possibility of the shot dropping; of the Raptors winning the game, and saving their season; of our broken hearts mending, and spilling out with joy.
Words can’t even do this moment justice:
WHAT A PASS. WHAT A SHOT.
— NBA (@NBA) September 4, 2020
Hopefully, this miracle win gives the Raptors some confidence, and some life heading into Game 4 on Saturday. The team still didn’t shoot the ball well at all, but they managed to come out with a win. Now, winning four of the next five has transformed into a task whereby Toronto needs to win three of the next four. As Fred VanVleet said, “They just needed something good to happen to them.”
From a separate Freddy quote, “Boston f***ed up,” by letting Toronto get their swagger back.