For the first time in a long time — hours, days and weeks being somewhat abstract concepts in the Walt Disney World Resort NBA bubble — the Toronto Raptors recognized themselves on Thursday night.
They saw a team engaged, committed and lost in the pursuit of a common goal. They saw contributions coming from all corners. They saw relief and joy.
For the first time in a long time, their worries were off their shoulders and they were just playing a game the way they do it best.
As much as their stupefying Game 3 win over the Boston Celtics will be forever remembered for the play that won it — a once-in-a-career perfect pass from Kyle Lowry that set up a you-might-never-see-this-again game-winning three with 0.5 seconds on the clock by OG Anunoby — it was the half of basketball that preceded it that could well unlock the Raptor potential in the rest of the series and beyond.
For the first time in a long time the Raptors won the way they had won so many games during a near-perfect regular season — with contributions from all corners, with regular contributors doing their regular things. Anunoby and Lowry’s connection will live forever, but the Raptors don’t get the chance to throw that Hail Mary if they don’t get something from everyone who stepped on the floor in the pivotal second half to help engineer a comeback from down 10 at the break.
“I think it’s really good for guys to be able to come in and make plays down the stretch when we need ’em,” said Norm Powell, who fought through some first-half foul trouble to score five vital points in just under five minutes of second-half action. “I think guys on this team have all been in situations like that when their name is called or whatever it is that they’ve gotta go out there and perform and produce no matter what role you’re in or how many minutes you get, you’re trying to go out there and make winning plays for the team. I thought everybody down the stretch, especially in the second half, was able to do that in certain ways. It wasn’t always scoring, it was little things that didn’t show up on the box score: Setting screens for guys to get open and get to the rim, moving the ball, things like that.”
The Raptors won their NBA championship with a superstar in Kawhi Leonard, and now they’re trying to defend it by committee.
It’s a tall order — there are almost no examples in NBA history of a team winning a title without an MVP-calibre player front-and-centre, often bolstered by one or two All-NBA players in support.
The Raptors believe they can do it. But through the first 10 quarters of their series against the Celtics, the committee never showed up.
That changed as the Raptors came back from down 10 at the half and on the verge of going down 0-3 to Boston, a hole that no team has dug themselves out of in league history.
Six of the seven Raptors rotation players scored — the exception being Serge Ibaka who has otherwise been one of the steadier contributors as Toronto’s offence has struggled against Boston.
There was a 14-point explosion from Pascal Siakam who was otherwise shooting 32.3 per cent from the floor for the series, bearing only the faintest resemblance to the player who was an All-Star starter back in February. Powell hit a crucial three and slashed to the rim with force for the first time, it seemed, since he was feasting on the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and Fred VanVleet shot threes freely and with confidence. Even Marc Gasol got a bucket to round out his best offensive game of the playoffs. Lowry, who played perhaps the best playoff game of his career, scored 17 of his 31 points and counted four of his eight assists while playing all 24 minutes in the second half.
The circumstances may have been a bit extreme, but how the Raptors got the win that saved their season looked comfortable and familiar.
“I think it just gets us back a little bit more to who we are and who we’re used to being,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on Friday. “I mean, Norm hitting a couple threes is like an everyday occurrence for us. Marc playmaking and scoring a bit, but playmaking a lot, and exuding confidence at both ends of the floor is kinda who Marc is too, and that’s kinda what we’re used to.
“…For whatever reason we weren’t quite ourselves here for a while. Give them credit, they’ve played great.”
The Raptors are understandably loath to make excuses and have no grounds to given the conditions they’ve been living under are the same as the Celtics or any other team still alive in the playoffs, but it’s been apparent that the zest with which they were playing for most of the regular season and certainly during the restart and the first part of the playoffs has been missing.
“I think it was everything. With all due respect to Brooklyn [the Raptors’ first-round opponent], I don’t think that got us ready to play at the level we needed to be ready for Game 1 [against Boston]. I think the transgressions of those few days when, whether we were gonna sit or play [after the players went on strike following the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis.], coupled in with laying that egg in Game 1. It was a lot,” said VanVleet, who scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half of Game 3, including a crucial, game-tying lay-up with 18 seconds left. “Then we played our butts off in Game 2 and didn’t come out with a win. We expect a lot of ourselves, so to be down 0-2, I mean we knew it wasn’t over, but nobody was happy. People were pissed off; the mood wasn’t great. All we needed was one [win] to get the juice back, a little magic. You know, get the momentum going on your side.”
That’s all Nurse is looking for. He knew his team wasn’t operating normally in Game 1 and Game 2 and the mood was off — “funky” was his word — but there was only one way to fix it.
“I don’t like to make excuses because Boston has played great. They’re really good and they’ve played great on top of it,” said Nurse. “They’re very well-coached and they’ve got tons of talent, they’ve got tons of shot making, and they brought it to us and we didn’t have any answers. I’m not making any excuses for them kinda kicking our butt.
“But we needed to start playing better and it looks like we might be ready to start playing better.”
There was a glimmer in the second half of Game 3.
The hope is now — with all hands having found a way to contribute — it can carry over to Game 4 and beyond, and the Raptors can win or lose on their own terms.