TORONTO – Sometimes all you are really desperate for is a response. Proof the fight is there. The will.
The Toronto Raptors have won their share of playoff games over the past six seasons as they have crawled their way up the NBA food chain, forcing the league, the networks, anyone who cares about the game to pay attention.
But they may have never won a game like they did on Sunday night.
Few Raptors teams have ever managed to find a way to win a game quite like this one — through sheer effort, determination and yes courage. It will go into the books as a 118-112 double-overtime win that narrows the Milwaukee Bucks‘ lead in the Eastern Conference Finals to a more manageable 2-1, with Game 4 on the same court Tuesday night.
But whatever happens to this team as they try to make the most of the one season of Kawhi Leonard they’ve been promised, it could well be their signature — evidence that it all mattered, that they were willing to lay it all out there for one another.
"It says everything. It says everything," said Pascal Siakam who scored 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had five assists, two steals and a potentially game-saving block in the second overtime period, not to mention a pair of crucial free throws.
"… I think that’s just the mentality that we have as a group,” Siakam continued. “We’ve got to continue to fight every single night and just go out there and let it out on the floor, and at the end of the day we’re going to live with the results because we know how much work we put in. We know how bad we want it."
That was the key, more than any line-up change Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made or contemplated: Would whoever was on the floor eating up those minutes in whatever configuration find a way to play hard and play free and play without fear?
Enough did, enough times, and the Raptors survived.
With their collective heels hanging over the cliff, Nurse needed his club to push first rather than get knocked over the edge and start a tumble down a crevasse with no obvious bottom. Step wrong and all you know was the landing was going to hurt, the kind of pain that offers little hope of recovery and scars that can last years.
The Raptors responded, individually and collectively, after the Bucks appeared poised to shove them out of the playoffs with a handy sweep of Toronto in two games back in Milwaukee.
There is no arguing that.
Home court? Pride? Desperation? Whatever the inspiration, the Raptors turned in by far their best defensive effort of the series – maybe of the post-season, considering the Bucks’ status as an emerging juggernaut.
Rather than hope Leonard could save them alone offensively, they got a wide spectrum of contributions in various forms – all the more remarkable given their rotation is capped out at seven players. They initiated the attack, didn’t get knocked off balance when the Bucks punched back and were able to keep Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo largely in check – no small feat considering he’s the favourite for the NBA MVP award this summer.
According to John Schuman of NBA.com, Leonard held Antetokounmpo to four points on 41 possessions as the primary defender; Siakam held him scoreless in 19 tries.
Nurse coached his butt off, mixing lineups, parsing out minutes, balancing foul trouble. But he had a group to work with that was clearly not ready to have their season tumble into oblivion, not yet.
"I think we just played a lot tougher, man," said Nurse. "We were up guarding and we were physical and we were ready to play."
It was an impressive all-around performance that turned on a number of moments but a couple of electric defensive plays stand out– a steal and fast-break dunk by Leonard that put the Raptors up three with three minutes to play in the second overtime and a spectacular blocked lay-up by Siakam on the Bucks’ Brook Lopez with 32 seconds left, one that sent Siakam tumbling to the floor from great heights.
"When you miss two free throws to kind of ice the game, you don’t think about how hard you’re going to fall," said Siakam. "I didn’t think about it. I just saw the play and I just went for it."
But this was a game that turned on countless other moments of courage.
Fred VanVleet, in the worst shooting slump of his career, hitting a crucial three to give the Raptors a lead late in the fourth (he is now 5-of-38 from deep in his last 14 games this post-season); Danny Green, similarly struggling, hitting a three in the first overtime — he had missed his first eight shots in the game — that was desperately needed; Siakam — having missed two free throws with seven seconds left in regulation that could have iced the game — coming back and hitting two free throws with 16 seconds left in the second overtime that did just that; Marc Gasol returning from the dead with 16 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists two nights after turning in one of the worst games of his NBA career; Leonard playing a career-high 52 minutes and coming up limping more than once while still carrying the load finishing with 36 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
He didn’t even hold overtime over Siakam’s head:
"I was like ‘I damn near played an hour tonight.’" Leonard said. "He was like ‘My bad Whi. I will make those free throws the next time.’
How was he holding up after all those minutes?
"I mean I have been there before," Leonard said of playing through what appeared to be some discomfort in his right leg after coming down from his steal and dunk in the second overtime. "It’s playoff basketball. You want to win. My teammates did a great job tonight, you know, just keep pushing. They played well. We all played well together. That’s all. Just kept fighting."
Toronto led 88-83 when Kyle Lowry fouled out with six minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Bucks slowly squeezed, like a python might. The Raptors had led every minute after taking the lead 95 seconds into the game until a George Hill lay-up tied the score with just over four minutes to play. But by then Norman Powell – brilliant off the bench with 19 points in 30 life-giving minutes – had fouled out too. The war of attrition was on.
The Raptors bent but didn’t break. They held the Bucks to 37.3 per cent shooting, forced 20 turnovers and were able to hold Antetokounmpo to 12 points — although he did muscle his way to 23 rebounds before fouling out in the first overtime. Now Toronto at least has a chance to bring the series back to Milwaukee.
Things were desperate. Teams that have fallen behind 0-3 in the NBA playoffs have never come back to win a series in 132 tries. Before Game 3 tipped off Nurse couldn’t have telegraphed more broadly his intention to shake-up his lineup in search of a new combination to close the gap on a series that seemed to be slipping out of the Raptors’ grasp.
But by the time the ball went up the same five starters Nurse has been rolling with throughout the playoffs walked to centre court.
Early on it seemed like everything Nurse didn’t touch turned to gold. Powell was a spark off the bench from beginning to end and Gasol was a pillar in the starting lineup. The Raptors jumped out to a 30-21 first quarter lead and held a 58-51 lead at half before the game got pulled down into a defence-first, second-half quagmire.
Gasol looked revived. After barely looking at the rim at times when the ball came his way over the course of the playoffs, he stepped into a wide-open three on his first touch after Leonard drew a crowd and pitched out for the first of his five first-half assists. Gasol did the same thing a moment later as he trailed Siakam in transition. He even scored five points in the second overtime, picking up for Leonard who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The win was not a masterpiece. It wasn’t pretty. The Bucks would argue they simply weren’t on their game as they dropped to 10-2 in their playoff run, losing for the first time in six games.
"Yeah, we could be up 3-0, double-overtime, we didn’t play well," said Antetokounmpo. "But at the end of the day, we’ve still got the lead."
Accurate. But the Raptors are still in the fight. They showed how badly they want to be.
Now all they have to do is find the energy to do it again on Tuesday night.