Nick Nurse likes to prepare for all eventualities. But even he didn’t know what to expect when his team was getting ready to open a new series against a division rival, after a week off, and in the midst of an unprecedented moment of social justice reckoning — all while also getting ready to kick off their ninth week in Florida because of the pandemic.
What else? Oh yeah, Kyle Lowry, their tone-setting point guard, was coming off an ankle injury and maybe — likely for the first time in career — not completely at one with playing basketball at the moment.
“I’m kind of waiting [to see what happens],” said Nurse, the Toronto Raptors head coach, before Game 1 of their second-round series against the Boston Celtics tipped off Sunday afternoon. “… I think everybody is trying to see what happens when it goes up and see what kind of mental capacity everyone has.”
Based on the Raptors being handled easily 112-94 by Boston, it’s fair to say his team wasn’t operating at their typical level.
Take Lowry. His ankle was fine, but his spirit — and likely those of others in an NBA bubble that seems immune from the novel coronavirus but not protected from some of the world’s other ills — remains bruised after a week in which Lowry’s responsibilities as a Black man, husband and father came before his duties as point guard.
“Basketball always matters, but in this situation — this time — it’s taken a backseat,” Lowry said. “Yes, it’s our job and we’re gonna go out there and perform at the highest level we can possibly perform at, there’s no excuses, but we still have an obligation right now and that’s to use our platform …”
Lowry said the Raptors were “very close” to leaving the bubble and ending their season but bought in to staying because of the bigger picture.
“We’re still here because we can get these messages out there,” he said.
That’s what the two-day strike that delayed the start of the Raptors-Celtics series was about and the players earned some significant concessions from the league and the franchise owners, including a commitment from the NBA to establish a social justice coalition, use of arenas for voter registration and polling and more public education spots during playoff broadcasts.
But from this point on the playoffs platform has to be earned, and the Raptors’ opportunity to keep sharing their message from the bubble depends on their ability to quell the Celtics.
In a series that projected to be a toss-up, the added uncertainty made what might happen after Game 1 started Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney World Resort that much more of a crapshoot.
The Raptors rolled snake eyes.
Was it their mindset? Their game plan? The match-up with the Celtics broadly?
Maybe — or likely — all of the above.
The defending NBA champions, winners of 32 of their past 37 games and 11 of 12 in Florida, simply didn’t have it for whatever reason and the Celtics — a popular pre-season pick to emerge from the Eastern Conference — weren’t going to cut Toronto any slack.
There was no category of the game that Toronto can take comfort in having out-played their Atlantic Division counterparts.
The No. 3 seeded Celtics got better performances out of their key players — Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart combined for 42 points on 15-of-28 shooting, while Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet managed just 8-of-32 from the floor. The Raptors’ bench — thought to be an area of strength before the series — was a non-factor, with Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka contributing 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting. The Raptors lost the battle of the centres, too, with Daniel Theis out-performing Marc Gasol by a margin.
Most concerning was the Raptors’ defence — the source of their identity — looked ordinary against a multi-faceted Celtics attack that got to the paint easily and whipped the ball around the perimeter to open shooters all afternoon, as they shot 47 per cent from the floor and 17-of-39 from three.
It has been a tough week and how the teams were going to handle it was a fair question in the buildup, as the league worked its way through the wildcat strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake that delayed the start of the series and rendered basketball matters a distant concern for a few days.
For the Raptors at least the notion of competition as a temporary sanctuary or salve didn’t quite pan out.
“I didn’t have any sense that things were off [before the game],” said Nurse. “But there was no joy. There was no joy. First of all the pre-games take like half an hour from the time the horn sounds to the time they throw the ball up, so I don’t think anybody really enjoys that big delay between warming up and the ball going up, and there’s not any joy in that part of it. It was a tough day for us, right? So, we didn’t have [it], nothing was much fun out there today.”
It has to be pointed out — and this is where Raptors fans might start feeling anxious — that the Celtics have been sharing precisely the same experience, other than the Raptors’ extra two weeks in Florida.
They didn’t know what to expect either and, to their credit, weren’t about to look for possible excuses.
“I’ve said this before, I think there are bigger things to worry about in the world than [the circumstances in the NBA bubble],” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “We are just going to go out and play as well as we can. Toronto and us have been on the exact same schedule. There is nothing normal about this experience so what we’ve tried to do this entire time is prepare as well as we can and play as well as we can. We will see how we play at one o’clock.”
They played great and if Raptors fans are looking for something to be worried about (beyond real life, we mean) they might start with having to reconcile the fact that Boston is now 4-1 against Toronto this year, and more relevantly 2-0 against Toronto in Florida — with both wins coming in blowouts, going back to Boston’s beatdown against Toronto when they met during the seeding games that ended the regular season.
In that sense, Sunday afternoon was just more of the same. By the end of the first quarter Boston led 39-23 and shot 59.1 per cent against the Raptors’ defence — the best in the NBA since Jan. 15 and second only to the Milwaukee Bucks on the season.
The Raptors came out flat. After the game Nurse was asked how his team creates the energy they need to play the kind of hard, connected basketball that has made them such an inspiration this season.
“I think that there’s a number of factors there,” he said. “I think it’s just locker-room feel, energy from the bench, obviously some connected play early on both ends of the floor, the ball going in. There’s a lot of ways to try to feel your energy/rhythm. And we seemed to be battling it from, virtually, the start.
“Really, right from the start, it seemed tough. I thought we created some really good things, and we came out with, like, nothing to show for it five minutes into the game. Three or four minutes into the game, we had no points. And we literally had a layup to start the game and a couple of wide-open threes early. And just nothing went. I don’t know. We’re gonna have to do a heck of a lot better a job to find the energy and rhythm come Tuesday [for Game 2].”
Toronto came out of the gates clanging, and never stopped. They were just 8-of-22 from the floor in the first quarter and 4-of-12 from three on their way to shooting 10-of-40 for the game, compared with Boston’s 17-of-39.
That, combined with being on the wrong end of 11 first-quarter fouls (to five for Boston), and coughing up six turnovers simply gave the Celtics too many chances. Granted, some of the calls seemed ticky-tacky at best. Nurse used his coach’s challenge on what looked like a very good close out by Siakam on a Jaylen Brown three and ended up losing the challenge, forcing Siakam to sit with his third foul, which prompted Nurse to take a technical foul to shake things up.
It didn’t work. The Raptors rallied briefly, cutting the Celtics’ lead to nine at one point, but it was an Ibaka turnover on a late post-up that was picked off by Tatum that led to a solo fastbreak. When Brown followed up with a buzzer-beating three the Celtics were able to take a 59-42 lead into the half. The closest the Raptors got in the second half was when Lowry converted a three-point play on the first possession of the fourth quarter to cut the Celtics’ lead to 12 only to watch Boston respond with a 10-2 run to push their lead to 20.
The Raptors had all kinds of reasons to come and play at less than their best. The problem is the Celtics did, too, and were able to execute when the ball went up, so the Raptors were not looking for an out.
“I mean, both teams was in the same situation,” said Ibaka, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the first half. “We are not the only team that was in that situation they were in that situation, too, and they played better than us today so I don’t think that was the reason or excuse we need to find.
“We have to give them a lot of credit, they played better than us and we have to learn from it, be better the next game.”
It was that kind of day and has been that kind of week. The Celtics navigated it better than Toronto did, it would seem, and now the Raptors can only look ahead.