They’ve been told they’re down, they’ve been told they’re out, they’ve been told they’re simply not good enough. It’s never mattered to them before, so why would it matter now?
A week ago, the Toronto Raptors trailed the Boston Celtics 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals and they said all that mattered was the next game. Scratching and clawing, they won it on OG Anunoby’s exhilarating yet stoic three-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining and then exerted their will in Game 4 to level the series. They won two in a row then, and now they need to do it again.
“Not hard at this time of the year,” Fred VanVleet said when asked about whether there would be any lasting effects of the crushing 111-89 defeat the Raptors suffered in Game 5. “I think playing every other day and your season depends on it, 3-2, you don’t really have time to look back, sit in it. It should hurt, it should sting, it should be disappointing, you should be pissed off, but all your focus and every has got to go into Game 6.
“We’ve just got to get one. That’s our main focus right now, is locking in on Game 6 and try to come out of there with a win because our season depends on it. So, it’s not really that hard, short term memory, we’ve been through the playoffs before, we know the ups and down and what it takes.”
The Raptors collectively had their championship mettle tested when they fell into the 0-2 hole, and passed the initial challenge to get the series level. It showed that there is residual value in having been through the grind and coming out the other side. No other team can really say they have that pedigree coursing through the veins of their roster. The L.A. Lakers are closest with LeBron James and J.R. Smith having done it together with Cleveland, while Danny Green, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo all experienced it separately. Kawhi Leonard has done it with two other teams and is the lone champion on the Clippers roster. But who else? The Golden State Warriors aren’t in the bubble and the Cavaliers and Heat teams James won a title with are but a distant memory.
No team possesses the depth of championship experience Toronto does, and they will need all of it to overcome a thoroughly impressive Celtics team in pursuit of its own destiny.
“I think, once you go through four rounds in the playoffs, and go deeper and deeper, you go in a really deep rabbit hole mentally and physically and you learn to respect—eight times in a row LeBron going through it, for me, it’s amazing,” Gasol said about the value of a title. “And before, from afar, you have a perspective. When you look closely and understand what it is, you learn to respect it a lot and you understand the grind that it takes, which is a whole different level.”
Just as in Games 3 and 4, Toronto will need their leader Kyle Lowry to play at his best. He may have had heavy legs in Game 5, having played just over 90 minutes the past two games to average 26.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists, but the Raptors will hope he’s got another couple of games that can help get them over the hump. Lowry himself said he wasn’t aggressive enough in Game 5 and expects that to be much different in the next game. The Celtics were so concerned by the way Lowry had been playing they put All-Defensive team candidate Marcus Smart on him, a clear sign of the respect Boston head coach Brad Stevens has for Lowry.
“I said going into this series that he’s an All-Star, but he might be the most underrated player in the league,” Stevens said. “I just think he’s a terrific defender, terrific leader, terrific effort player—offensively he puts you in a bind by getting fouled, making tough shots. He does every little thing that helps teams win. Somehow he’s been underappreciated. The more people watch him in these settings, the more he’s appreciated. He’s an amazing player, and certainly is a big engine for them.”
Another player who will need to rediscover at least some of his best will be Pascal Siakam, who has struggled for the majority of this series going up against the likes of Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum. While he has mostly excelled defensively, he has failed his first serious test as the No. 1 scoring option. That shouldn’t come as a shock for someone who was asked to take on a role he’s never had before. Failures are part of the process that have helped Siakam succeed, and ultimately this will just be another chapter in his journey to fulfilling all he can be as a basketball player.
In the here and now, the Raptors need him to at least be better than he has been, and closer to the capabilities he’d shown prior to the league’s shutdown due to COVID-19 if they are to find a way out of his series deficit. Simple, right? The best players have to play their best and if they don’t, it’ll be time to pack their bags and get out of the Orlando bubble. Toronto’s players have a belief that their best always finds a way to shine through in the biggest moments, that there is always time to figure it out until there really isn’t.
“It’s the playoffs, so you learn from it and make adjustments and continue to grow and figure it out,” Lowry said. “I mean, right now, we’re at the brink of elimination, so we’ve got to, we’re literally fighting for our lives right now on the basketball floor. So, it’s win or go home.”