A team that has defined itself by its will to fight against unlikely odds — and more often than not succeeding — wasn’t going to go out easily.
There would be no towel tossing; no rush to slide out of the bubble when the hill got too steep.
You knew that, and more importantly, they knew that.
“Listen, we love to compete,” said Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before his team tipped off a must-win Game 6 in their second-round series against the Boston Celtics. “There’s our love and our joy right there, and it doesn’t get any more competitive than this. It’s a good team, we’ve gotta win to keep our season alive, so yeah, it’s gonna be awful hard work. We’ve gotta find the joy and love in that, for sure.”
They found the joy and the love. The work was there. They even put in overtime and then double overtime.
Their reward for their efforts? A 125-122 win through 58 minutes of high-tension hoops and a chance to do it all again on Friday night in Game 7, their season on the line once more.
It’s not that they do things the hard way. It’s just that even when it’s hard, they do it anyway, like crawling out of an 0-2 series hole with a buzzer-beating win with 0.5 seconds on the clock like they did in Game 3, or surviving the twists and turns of a double-overtime game while facing elimination.
“I mean, we had to work,” said Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who put up another signature performance in a career full of them as he led all scorers with 33 points under the heaviest pressure while adding eight rebounds, six assists and two steals in 53 minutes to extend the season for one more game.
“Our job is to be out there and play as hard as possible,” he said. “We’re playing against a physical, tough team, well coached, a couple all-stars and some real-life stars and a great team. We had to work hard for this win and for us, personally, that’s what we do: we play hard and we go out there and we play every possession like it’s our last and find ways to pull out victories.”
They do their work well — Lowry best of all — even if for much of the season-hinging contest it appeared their effort might be in vain, and their unlikely defence of the NBA championship would run out of steam before it ever hit a wall.
Through six games you can count the periods of strong play from Toronto in quarters — they have yet to put together a full game even though the series is now tied 3-3.
For the longest time in Game 6 they couldn’t find a way around, over or through a stout Celtics defence that had stifled the Raptors all series and which looked like it was going to be the difference down the stretch with Toronto facing elimination. The Raptors failed to score in the final 4:24 of regulation, allowing Boston to force the extra period by only scoring a pair of field goals — both dunks by Celtics centre Daniel Theis — as the Raptors were playing with a small lineup featuring OG Anunoby at centre that was otherwise effective but surrendered some chances to Boston at the rim.
But with the season in the balance they forced their way through the smallest spaces, their offence leaking into cracks like rainwater. It started slowly in the first overtime with Lowry finally taking the lid off the basket with a jumper and Norman Powell knocking down a three and earning a pair of free-throws to put Toronto up two before the Celtics tied it at the line with 19 seconds to go. Powell was just warming up, turns out. He had a chance to end it with a three at the end of the first overtime, but his shot missed left. But the cracks grew bigger and the Raptors were able to pour it on.
Powell didn’t miss much after that as he scored 10 of his 23 points in the second overtime, including a three-point play sparked by his steal on Jayson Tatum to put the Raptors up by four with 39 seconds remaining, earning Lowry’s praise.
“Can I say what I really want to say?” Lowry asked. “F– that was great. Thank you, Norm. That was f—— unbelievable. S–t. That was cool. We needed that.”
Lowry being Lowry, he made sure Powell’s big moment didn’t go to waste — it’s what teammates are for.
While Tatum was putting up five points in 27 seconds to keep Boston in striking distance, Lowry kept the Raptors ahead by backing the smaller Kemba Walker down into the paint and making his second turnaround jumper of the second overtime.
Fittingly. You don’t win in double overtime without help from all hands — the Raptors know that from their double-OT win against Milwaukee in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, when they were at risk of going down 3-0 in that series.
This was the long-awaited ‘Norm’ game that has become a bit of Powell’s trademark in his five seasons — game-changing scoring binges that tend to come when the Raptors need them most. The hope was that it would have come sooner, given the career-year Powell put up in the regular season, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“The playoffs are always about the role players, the other guys, the guys that aren’t sort of necessarily the top guys,” said Lowry. “It’s about the guys that can sort of us give us something and coach rode with Norm, and Norm was big tonight. Big, huge threes, and-1, free throws, some good defence down the stretch but that’s just playoff basketball, the others have to step up. You got a game like that going to two overtimes you never know who’s gonna be that guy and tonight, Norm was that guy.”
Similarly, an impressive 13 points and 13 rebounds from Anunoby, included a key triple in the second OT; 13 points from Serge Ibaka including three triples in two minutes in the second quarter that helped right the ship when the Raptors were trailing by as much as 12 and looked to be fading early. A very welcome eight points including a pair of threes from the badly struggling Marc Gasol in the third quarter that helped the Raptors gain their first lead, as he combined with Fred VanVleet — who scored 12 of his 21 points in less than three minutes as Toronto, trailing 52-48 at half, was able to take an 81-77 lead into the fourth quarter.
But underlying all of that was Lowry and another epic outing.
The legend continues to grow, in other words.
“Kyle’s been big time all year and all my five years here, making big plays, giving up his body for the team, taking charges out on the floor, and we need that,” said Powell. “He’s our leader. We go as he goes. He did a great job in crunch time keeping us calm and getting us into our sets, making big plays, passes, shots. That’s what K-Low does and we need him to continue to do it.”
He’ll get another kick at it on Friday. The last time the Raptors were in a Game 7 they won it with The Shot. To even get that far this time they needed a chance, and with everything on the line, Lowry gave them that.