The Raptors will not relinquish their title as defending NBA champions without the scrappiest of street fights.
First down 2-0, then 3-2 as the result of an absolutely dismantling performance by the Boston Celtics, Toronto has breathed life back into the series on the back of their 34-year-old All-Star Kyle Lowry, who refuses to let go of the rope, a rising star in OG Anunoby impacting the game in every which way on both ends, and some good old championship hustle and heart.
Boston has had their standout storylines as well, with Jayson Tatum looking worthy of superstar status, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown having their moments of brilliance, and Marcus Smart proving a real thorn in the Raptors’ side.
Wednesday night’s double-overtime thriller was an instant, NBA playoff classic and fitting of the series that has been between these two teams thus far. Heading into Game 7, each side has an argument for why the series should be over and that’s usually a tell-tale sign that this is going to live in the memory banks for a long time to come.
In recent memory, think of the Milwaukee Bucks being seconds away from taking a 3-0 series lead against the Raptors a year ago, a Draymond Green kick leading to the most famous 3-1 comeback in NBA Finals history, the Chris Bosh rebound that led to that Ray Allen three, or Robert Horry going Big Shot Bob for either the Lakers or the Spurs. This is just what all-time series are made of.
On that note, here are five moments that have swung this series back and forth and have led us to what should be a fitting finale Friday night.
Smart goes Splash Brother mode
After a Game 1 drubbing, the Raptors looked to have righted the ship in Game 2 and looked well on their way to victory with a 12-point lead late in the quarter. Smart had other ideas, though, catching fire in the fourth with five 3-pointers that quickly evaporated Toronto’s lead and left most of their players shaking their heads.
“I mean, it sucks,” Lowry said after the game. “He made five shots, he's a pro, got five looks, and got an and-1 on one. He got hot and we didn't cool him off.”
AnuKobe saves the Raptors’ season
The Raptors didn’t have much going for them in a must-win Game 3, but for Lowry, who was magnificent with 31 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and two steals. He refused to let the Raptors die silently into the night, and his battling performance left Toronto with one final chance with 0.5 seconds remaining.
Cue Lowry teeing up the perfect pass over the outstretched arms of 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall and into the hands of Anunoby, and the rest is history.
It is one of those shots that will live forever in playoff history—the defending champions on the verge of trailing in a 0-3 series deficit; one that no team has ever come back from in the history of the NBA and being saved by the cool, calm presence of Anunoby. The non-reaction is just uncanny considering the circumstances.
What was equally impressive as Anunoby’s performance on the night was his post-game press conference, where he showed a level of swag we all should aspire to in saying, “I don’t shoot trying to miss… I wasn’t gonna act surprised when I wasn’t surprised.”
Celtics’ head coach gives Raptors a much-needed rest
Lowry was at his best once again in Game 4 but this time he had some real help from his teammates. Serge Ibaka scored 18 points off the bench including a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range, Siakam had 23 points and 11 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet hit five 3-pointers.
The Raptors maintained control for much of the night but were running out of gas with head coach Nick Nurse hardly making any room for his bench players in hopes of avoiding a 3-1 series deficit. He was even burning timeouts just to give his team a rest instead of talking strategy.
So, when Lowry scrambled for a loose ball and Boston’s head coach decided to use his Coach’s Challenge to get a call reversed in his team’s favour, it caused a stoppage in play Nurse and the Raptors were grateful for and might have given them the added boost they need to close out the game.
“I thought we got a really big boost on the challenge,” Nurse said after Game 4. “It was a big point where we were playing, it was frantic, it was another big resting point for our guys.”
Ibaka refuses to go down without a fight
After getting trounced for the second time in the series in Game 5, Toronto seemed to be licking its chops. Ibaka twisted his ankle and was in a boot the next day when he spoke with media. While both Nurse and VanVleet seemed optimistic he would play, it was still concerning as to how useful he might be.
That question was answered in the second quarter of Game 6 when the Raptors looked no match for the Celtics once again. For all their energy and effort, Boston just looked the better team and were quickly growing their lead.
With nothing clicking offensively, Ibaka did what he does best and went for the jugular. He made one three, then another, and what looked a likely double-digit deficit heading into halftime was cut to four and gave the Raptors life once again.
Playoff Powell finally turns up
While Lowry was once again the star of the game and hit several clutch shots of his own, the Raptors had been waiting all along for the customary Norman Powell series-saving playoff performance and Nurse refused to lose hope through five games.
“We need him,” Nurse said emphatically when asked if there would be perhaps be a shorter leash because of how badly Powell had struggled to that point. “He’s going to come off the bench and he’s going to play and he’s probably going to play through a few mistakes and a few missed shots. Everyone is making them, right, shouldn’t just be him who is getting the quick hook because everyone is making them. Everybody on both sides is making mistakes. We need to let him play through ‘em. He needs to provide a spark, he needs to provide a transition spark for us, and an at-the-rim spark and a 3-point spark, there’s no doubt.”
That confidence must have inspired the resurgence, as Nurse trusted Powell to play virtually the entire fourth quarter and both overtimes and he came up with 10 points in the final two-and-a-half minutes, including a game-tying 3-pointer and a clutch and-1 finish at the rim to turn the game in favour of the Raptors.
“He saved us, he saved our season,” VanVleet said after the game. “And it’s kind of his trademark now; you never know when it’s gonna happen but it always happens at some point in the playoffs.”
Lowry had arguably the best quote of the night about Powell, although parental guidance is advised:
When you hit a shot like the one below, you can say whatever you want.