Raptors surgical in pursuit of key Game 4 win, level ground in series

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry drives to the basket ahead of Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis (27) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The Toronto Raptors stole a win in Game 3 to get themselves back in their second-round series against the Boston Celtics.

But what would they do with their loot?

Double-down and shift the pressure entirely over to the Celtics? Or squander it and end up with a steady diet of elimination games, down 3-1?

The Raptors went Wall Street as they invested the winnings from OG Anunoby’s unlikely buzzer-beater into a Game 4 victory.

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Unlike Game 1 when the Raptors were never in it down the stretch, Game 2 when they fumbled the game away or Game 3 when they had to rely on Kyle Lowry threading the needle to Anunoby for his game-winning three with 0.5 seconds left, in Game 4 the Raptors were surgical in the close of their 100-93 win as they evened the series 2-2 with Game 5 scheduled for Monday.

Lowry wouldn’t have it any other way. He started the game with a bang and ended it with a scalpel as he knocked down a key three, forced a pair of turnovers – including a crucial one with 30 seconds left as the Raptors led by five — and assisted on a couple more key hoops in the final moments. He finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists while backing up his 47 minutes in Game 3 with 44 minutes in Game 4, again playing the entire second half without a break.

“I did check with him, a couple of times,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I was joking, I asked him if he needed a sub with a smile [and] he’d chew me out — ‘I don’t need one’ — I was kind of kidding.”

Lowry wasn’t alone in playing big minutes and delivering. Fred VanVleet was 5-of-10 from three for 17 points to go along with six rebounds and six assists while playing 45 minutes. Pascal Siakam played 46 minutes as Nurse rode his key players hard. It didn’t seem to affect the Raptors’ shooting legs as they finally found some rhythm from deep, shooting 17-of-44 from three while holding Boston to 7-of-35 from deep, which was largely the difference in the game.

“I still think we’re not close to where we could be shooting it at, but we made some threes in a good stretch in the third quarter, made some big ones in the fourth,” said Lowry, who was 4-of-10 from three. “You know, the way they play defence is they contest really, really hard, but we’ve just got to shoot the ball with confidence and continue to shoot the ball with confidence and keep getting better. If we get one of those games where we get really, really hot, it makes a big difference.”

The Raptors took an 81-73 lead into the fourth quarter after a third period where they looked as fluid as they have all series. Siakam, who scored 12 of his game-high 23 points in the paint, took advantage of the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown inside, while VanVleet found his three-point stroke and Lowry orchestrated with four assists, including three straight triples – two by VanVleet and one by Serge Ibaka – that helped Toronto gain some breathing room, which has been hard to come by for the Raptors.

For the most part, they kept the Celtics at a distance although Boston did cut what was an 11-point lead with just over to two minutes left to only five with 57.3 seconds to play before Anunoby iced the game with a pair of free throws with 26 seconds to play, putting Toronto up by seven.

The big question coming into Saturday’s game was how would the Raptors follow up on their unlikely win in Game 3, and the Raptors answered quickly. Lowry came out as if he was blasted from a cannon, putting up a quick 11 points in the first quarter and bulling his way to the free throw line to help Toronto jump out to a 31-27 lead and a welcomed sense of control.

The Raptors were tied at the half before gaining the upper hand in the third quarter. They haven’t played perfect basketball yet but they’re grinding away regardless, which might be more important than winning games when everything is flowing easily.

“I think there’s been some effort and some desire and some toughness and trying to carry it through for most possessions,” Nurse said. “Each possession seems to be pretty critical in a playoff game, and we’re getting to the point where we’re playing most of the possessions as, we’re trying hard, we’re making some mistakes and they’ve got good players and they make shots and some things like that, but we’re down and we’re trying to compete is the biggest thing.

“…I think we played some ball tonight, looked like the team we remember a lot tonight, right? I thought we, for the most part of the game, I thought we made really excellent decisions at the offensive end, we just kept probing and looking and passing and finding good shots, and then guys stepped up and made some big ones when we needed ’em.”

The Raptors have made it a series but they still don’t feel like they’re playing at their peak level. But they can take comfort in knowing they’ve got at least two more chances to find it after being half a second away from almost certain elimination.

They’re not at their best – and the Celtics likely have a lot to do with it as they held Toronto to 39 per cent from the floor — but they are comfortable with that. Coming out of Game 4, they can feel good that they didn’t squander good fortune from Game 3 and they can still work towards their ultimate reward, even if it requires some heavy, uphill slogging against a quality team.

“I think we know who we are, I think we know how we want to play,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s just a matter of keep battling and I think we’re just OK being uncomfortable and not being pretty.

“I think we can win in many different ways and I think that we’re very versatile and just trying to keep continuing to find ways to win,” he said. “It’s not always going to be pretty but I think we’re comfortable with how ugly and mucky the game is now. Now we would like it not to be that way but you’ve got to take what you get and that’s a great team that we’re going up against and we’ll take any wins that we can get, take any success that we can get.”

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