PHILADELPHIA — 12:00 on the clock. As the Wells Fargo Center shook around them, the Toronto Raptors broke their huddle and walked calmly onto the floor. After 36 back-and-forth minutes had gotten them to a 75-75 tie with the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth game of their Eastern Conference semi-final, the Raptors were entering a fourth quarter that could very well decide their season.
Win the quarter and go back to Toronto with the series tied, three opportunities to win two more games, and home-court advantage once again theirs. Lose the quarter, and face the necessity of winning three consecutively to move on, something that’s happened only 11 times in the more-than 70-year history of the NBA playoffs.
An off-season overhaul, a trade deadline shakeup, eight months’ work, 82 regular-season games, load management, a franchise’s history, a fan base’s torment, careers, legacies, narratives — it all hung in the balance.
“It was very intense. This is basketball playoffs — this is why it’s the playoffs,” said Serge Ibaka, who played all but 38 seconds of the fourth. “It was one of those nights where we didn’t try to make it look pretty. We had to try to grind, man. I don’t care if we didn’t have space tonight.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to watch the film and figure it out. But tonight was about just grinding. Just giving everything you have.”
9:46 on the clock. Pascal Siakam dribbled beyond the arc, as his defender, Joel Embiid, sagged way off of him into the paint. Embiid had been doing it all night. Siakam rarely hits three-pointers from above the break, and wasn’t shooting well in general as he went 1-for-9 over the first three quarters, so Embiid gave him all the space in the world, daring him to shoot.
But what Embiid didn’t see was Kyle Lowry, funnelling his man, James Ennis II, towards Embiid in the paint. Siakam took off, and as he raced to the paint, Lowry spread his legs wide and set a screen on both Embiid and Ennis, freeing up the lane for Siakam to throw down a one-handed jam, tying the game.
As he landed, Siakam threw his right leg up in the air, using his left to absorb all the impact of his landing. He had to. Early Sunday afternoon, Siakam took the floor for the first time since Thursday, when he bruised his right calf during Game 3. He went through a series of movements with Raptors Director of Sports Science, Alex McKechnie, to see how his leg would respond. It didn’t feel great. But it wasn’t bad enough to miss this game of all games.
“I felt it was sore, but I felt like if I warmed up a little I could make it better,” Siakam said. “I mean, it was sore. But I just felt like I could play through it.”
It didn’t look comfortable. Siakam’s lateral movement was clearly limited as he tried to defend, he lacked some of his trademark springiness and speed in transition, and his mobility degraded as the game wore on. But even in the midst of all that — and a horribly flat shooting night — Siakam was there to tie the game when his team needed him.
“That meant a lot,” said Danny Green. “Regardless of whether he’s 100 per cent or not, we need him. If he’s good enough to where he’s even at 50, it helps us a ton.”
9:18 on the clock. With the game tied and the ball in his hands, Jimmy Butler was darting and probing, trying to find a way through Lowry to the paint. It just wasn’t there. Lowry scrambled left and right, keeping Butler as far away from the rim as possible while the shot clock ticked down. Then, with only three seconds left to shoot, Lowry poked the ball out of Butler’s hands and beyond the three-point line.
Butler raced back to collect it, and just before the shot clock expired, with both Lowry and the helping Kawhi Leonard throwing hands in his face, heaved a desperation prayer in the direction of the basket, kicking his legs out and trying in vain to draw a foul. The ball arced long, hit the backboard, and dropped straight down through the rim as the buzzer went off and Lowry dropped his shoulders like his central nervous system had malfunctioned.
Watching from the bench, Norman Powell thought, oh no. Not like this.
“Yeah, it was a great stop by Kyle,” Powell said. “I’m thinking it’s a shot clock violation. And then he just turned and let it go.”
If that was the one that did it, if Butler’s low-percentage look gave the Sixers the lead they needed to win the game, it would have been so supremely torturous for the Raptors. Not only because of how bad a look it was, but because of how many good looks Toronto bricked.
Really, the Raptors could have been laughing their way to a blowout if they had demonstrated any capacity to hit open shots during the first three quarters of the game. Siakam missed four threes in the first quarter alone, three of them wide open in the corners. Midway through the second, Ibaka shot a three from within an apparent eight-foot forcefield and missed the rim entirely. Leonard ended up with half his team’s 10 makes from distance.
In all, the Raptors went 17-of-33 on uncontested shots over those first three quarters, according to ESPN Stats and Info. And if you take away Leonard, it’s 11-of-27. In a way, it’s a good thing that the Raptors are creating so many open looks. It’s a bad thing that they aren’t converting them. But it’s a good thing all over again that if that process continues, the results have to follow at some point.
“With the shots that aren’t falling that we’re taking, from the starters to the bench, I mean, you’ve just got to keep shooting,” Powell said. “We’ve been shooting them all year. We’ve been making them all year. You’ve just got to stay confident in your work and that your shots are going to fall. Step into them and knock them down. If they don’t go in, get a stop, and come right back at it.”
7:04 on the clock. The Raptors down three, Leonard dribbled into the paint, drawing multiple defenders, as he does, while trying to bulldoze his way through all of them, as he also does. But instead of forcing a shot, he kicked the ball out to Marc Gasol, who was standing unguarded at the elbow. The big Spaniard took his time, calmly gathering the pass and stepping confidently into his shot, drilling a three to tie the game.
It was the polar opposite of Butler’s three — the type of high percentage look every team’s offence is trying to create. It’s no doubt encouraging that the Raptors generated so many of them Sunday, but even more reassuring was the sight of Gasol taking it so assuredly and with such rhythm. Throughout the playoffs for Gasol and many Raptors, that hasn’t always been the case.
“Yeah, and I’m going to continue to shoot it,” Gasol said. “They felt good, they’re on-line — a little bit short, a few, because I’m looking a little bit and I get off-balance. But I feel really good. I’m a confident guy. If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it.”
5:42 on the clock. Embiid walked slowly to the scorer’s table, put his head down, and re-entered the contest. At the time, he was plus-21 in a game his team was losing by one. Even on a night when he battled illness, and in a game that saw Butler go off for 29, Embiid was Philadelphia’s most impactful player by leaps and bounds. His 21.2 net rating was the best number on either roster, and not by a small margin.
He led his team in screen assists (two), contested shots (15), box outs (eight), and, perhaps most annoyingly for the Raptors, fouls drawn (seven). Literally the first thing he did upon checking in was drive at Gasol and force the Raptors centre into his fourth foul of the night. And a minute-and-a-half later, as he battled Embiid in the paint, Gasol had five.
It’s a problem. The Raptors played the final four minutes and change with Gasol and Green each sitting on five fouls, which upped the stress level as they tried to contain Embiid and Butler with little margin for error. It speaks to how well Toronto defended that Embiid was nevertheless held to only three points — all of them free throws — during his 10 fourth-quarter minutes.
Of course, some of it is out of their control, and Gasol’s fifth foul was about as ticky-tack as they come. But the Raptors ought not to play with fire like that again.
“I knew for sure one of us was going to foul out at some point. I was hoping it wasn’t going to be me,” said Green, who it was. “It’s tough. Even Pascal had four. I think that’s going to be the emphasis of next game, to try to play without fouling. Do better limiting, not reaching, not getting the cheap ones. If we do that, it will help us a ton. Keep guys on the floor and keep guys in front of people.”
1:01 on the clock. As he faced up Sixers guard Ben Simmons, Leonard glanced at the shot clock. He had five seconds. Gasol set a screen on Simmons and Leonard darted around it. He had three seconds. Embiid met him at the top of the arc and kept Leonard in front of him. He had one second. Leonard side-stepped and rose up as Embiid leapt out. It was in all the way.
That’s some ruthless stuff. One of the most important shots in Raptors history. Not many guys out there that could do it with such poise.
“Kobe — that man’s Kobe,” Powell said. “I was like, ‘It’s good, it’s good.’ That’s what I was saying the whole time after he made that. Even when it went up, man. Little side-step fadeaway, nothing but net. That’s Kobe right there, man.”
As always, Leonard barely celebrated his latest unbelievable feat. The latest time he saved his team, crushed the narratives, won a game. He just clenched his fist and jogged back to the defensive end, looking for white jerseys coming his way. Just another shot on another night in another fourth quarter, with everything hanging in the balance.
“This team’s got some character, some fight,” Green said. “Not giving up, not giving in. Even when things aren’t going our way, we can still find a way — regardless of how bad we’re playing, how bad things get. We still always have a chance to make some things happen. It wasn’t pretty. But we got it done.”