TORONTO – Down 26 points with 43 seconds left in the third quarter to the Dallas Mavericks Sunday afternoon in a game that saw them trailing by as many as 30, Malcolm Miller checked in for the Toronto Raptors.
Miller replaced OG Anunoby – who struggled Sunday, going 3-for-8 from the field for six points and a team-worst minus-27 on the day – took his spot in the bottom left hash marks and watched as Canadian Dwight Powell converted his second free throw attempt to pump the Mavericks’ lead to 27.
On the floor for the Raptors for what appeared to be a ceremonial free-throw of death for Toronto at the time was Miller, Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher.
An extreme case of the vaunted Lowry-and-the-bench lineups of the yore, this appeared to be something that Nurse would throw out at the end of the quarter and then likely wave the white flag in the fourth as the Raptors were scheduled to play in Indiana Monday on the second night of a back-to-back.
Well, that would’ve been the case had it been just about any other team than the Raptors.
“I would say we have always been a team that fights,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “In my time here, we hardly ever mail it in. It’s a good characteristic to have.”
In a sleepy Sunday afternoon game that saw the team shoot 23-of-69 from the field and put up only 63 points through three quarters, those old good Raptors habits kicked into overdrive in the fourth quarter.
The Raptors made the biggest comeback in franchise history, outscoring the Mavericks 47-21 in the fourth and walked away with a miraculous 110-107 victory.
Here’s a closer look at that record-breaking fourth quarter at how, exactly, the Raptors pulled off a pre-Christmas miracle.
Scrambling, trapping, pressing defence
Thanks to four free throws that Hollis-Jefferson made at the end of the fourth, the Raptors entered the fourth trailing by 23 – obviously not great, but better than before.
But more important than the made free throws from Hollis-Jefferson was what was seen from the Raptors’ defence after each attempt: A now-familiar sight of the Raptors scrambling, trapping and picking up full court to try to speed the Mavericks up, and create turnovers.
This proved to be the blueprint that set in motion the enormous comeback to come in the next quarter, and it was largely thanks to the somewhat patchwork Lowry-and-bench lineup Nurse came upon when Miller replaced Anunoby at the end of the third.
Nurse ended up riding this lineup until 1:37 left in the fourth where, by that time, the Raptors had taken a three-point lead and had all momentum on their side to finish off the job.
“We stayed with it a long time, we probably called it off a little bit early to be honest with you,” said Nurse of the pressing defence and the lineup he was utilizing with it. “There really wasn’t any reason [to stop].”
When you force a team to turn the ball over seven times and hold them to 5-of-19 shooting in a single frame, why would you change what was so clearly working?
Nurse found a solution, and Dallas had no answer for it, ultimately.
”We’re gonna make one charge here at this thing”
Obviously, the results went the Raptors way, but to even get in the mood to attempt the desperation trapping defensive scheme Nurse employed in the fourth still takes a lot of buy-in.
This is a team that clearly doesn’t quit, though, and even as things seemed grim at the end of the third quarter, the spark remained.
“The mood was really bad to start the fourth quarter,” said Nurse. “We were getting our butts kicked. But we just had a little recent success with pressing in Philly down late, so I said, we’re gonna make one charge here at this thing. Let’s air it out for a few minutes and see. We immediately worked and chipped into it.”
Added Lowry: “We were just like, ‘Look we’re going to try.’ Nick threw us the press and everyone just said, ‘Alright let’s do it.’”
This never-say-die attitude from the Raptors was infectious and the Scotiabank Arena crowd definitely appeared to respond to it as you could literally hear the fans get back into the game as early as 1:10 into the fourth quarter.
At that point, the Mavericks called timeout after a Hollis-Jefferson tip-in, and the crowd rose to their feet sensing a comeback in the air despite Toronto cutting the lead to a still sizeable 18 points.
“We were challenging everything they were doing hard, and again, that’s energy, that’s the crowd,” said Nurse.
Added Miller: “It’s excitement. We’re getting stops. We’re getting buckets. We’re moving the ball. Kyle’s going absolutely crazy. Everything felt good. Everything was falling into place. There was a lot of energy from the crowd, energy from the bench and energy on the floor.”
And Boucher, who’s exclamation-point dunk with 25.8 seconds left to give the Raptors the lead once again, essentially iced the game: “I’m definitely going to go watch the game again and see how exciting this game was and how the fans helped us so much, just by cheering with us. We could feel down on the court, how much they wanted us to win this game. It was probably one of the best games I’ve been to, for real.”
Sometimes, all it takes to is a little belief, and momentum will follow.
The other huge reason why the Raptors made this ridiculous comeback was Lowry.
Like Miller said, he went “absolutely crazy” finishing with 32 points on 12-of-23 shooting, including 20 in the final frame, going 7-for-10 from the field and 4-for-6 from three-point range.
It was Lowry’s heroic shot-making that made Nurse’s defensive scheme work the way it did and, as a bonus, it was a lot of fun for the other Raptors to see him turn the clock back a bit to his older, more dominant days.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it,” said Nurse.
“All he said was ‘keep pushing,’” said Boucher. “He led us the right way, put us in great spots. Kyle does that every time. Even when people don’t see it. Kyle’s a great leader.”
“I mean, he’s a vet, he’s a 14-year pro and that’s what he does,” added Davis.
“Kyle is an elite player and a champion,” said Miller. “He knows what it takes to win, and he knows his game well. He’s willing to step up and hit those big shots.”
For Lowry, however, the comeback wasn’t about his own individual brilliance, it was always about the guys around him.
“I didn’t do it,” Lowry said. “We had a great team effort. Malcolm, Terence Davis, Rondae and Chris Boucher. I give them all the credit today.”
A class act to the end, the man whose nickname puts him “over everything,” put everyone else over himself.