The Toronto Raptors huffed and puffed but just couldn’t blow down the Boston Celtics’ house.
Exhausted, battered, and bruised, tired mistakes were ultimately the undoing of the Raptors’ admirable title defence. Eighteen turnovers that led to 31 transition points for the game and 3-of-17 (17.6 percent) shooting from beyond the arc after the first quarter reflected weary legs and minds that were a step too slow in a 92-87 Game 7 loss.
An honourable defeat should do nothing to take away from the swagger with which Toronto marched all season. Most prognosticators had the Milwaukee Bucks, Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the Eastern Conference heap before the season began, believing that the losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green would leave the Raptors without a chance. But their self-belief rose to the occasion and their smarts regularly outwitted any opponent put before them. And they worked, boy, did they ever work.
“When you watch our team most nights, win, lose, or draw, you gotta come out of there saying at least those guys gave you everything they have,” head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “And I think they do it at an extraordinary level. It’s an extraordinary level of commitment and desire and fight that they bring.
“It’s always sad when a season ends, for sure. That’s a special team, a special team.”
Before thinking of how the dream died in a final 60 seconds that saw Kyle Lowry foul out and Norman Powell fail to box out Jayson Tatum and Fred VanVleet air-ball a potential game-tying 3-pointer and the timeout that could have been, let’s rewind back to Game 3 to understand the greatness that got the Raptors there in the first place.
With 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Toronto had to lean on its highly touted defence to keep its season alive in a tie game. They pressured Kemba Walker and had cover ready for everyone else. Walker tried to shift one way, then the other before finally snaking through. Still, there was no real option in sight until—just as he looked away—Daniel Theis was free under the basket. Out of the corner of Walker’s eye, and from behind his shoulder, he threw a spectacular pass and the Boston Celtics looked set to take a 3-0 lead with 0.5 seconds remaining.
"I already miss this team, you know what I mean? It was a hell of a two-year run with the core group of these guys but I didn’t think that at all here until the game ended." - Nick Nurse
It should have been over, and the Raptors should’ve hung their heads and been staring at a sweep. Battered in Game 1, squandering a lead in Game 2, this looked the final nail in the coffin. But the previous year taught them not to and so Kyle Lowry made the improbable pass and OG Anunoby hit the unexpected shot.
“No one was rattled after that,” Anunoby said of the Walker pass to Theis. “Everybody just stayed confident and said, ‘Next play.’ Just focused on winning this play and getting a good shot off. We were confident with anyone that took a shot. So, we were just looking for the next play. This group is resilient, so just next-play mentality.”
Toronto tied the series at 2-2, then 3-3 with a double-overtime classic. In Game 7, they trailed by 12 seven minutes in and by 10 with under five minutes remaining. Still, VanVleet had a chance to force overtime. They were down but never out. What we witnessed over not only the 64 regular season games but the 11 playoff games that ensued was the most tangible display of the intangibles winning a championship brings. People didn’t wonder what this team could be without Leonard, they simply wrote them off. But for those who paid attention to Toronto, there was a clear demonstration of the value of sticking together, of having a team that had been battle-tested to the very end together.
The Raptors had no right competing on an early November West Coast trip featuring Leonard, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic without the services of Lowry and Serge Ibaka—but they found a way. They had every opportunity to throw in the towel when the Dallas Mavericks led by 30 points in the third quarter of a December game—but they found a way. Trailing by as many as 19 points to the Indiana Pacers and having already tied the franchise-record win streak of 11, they could have rested on their laurels but instead came back and created history by extending the streak to 12 and finally stopped at 15. Did I mention they did this all while losing 219 man-games to injury, fifth-most in the NBA?
“I’m proud of the emergence of these guys: Freddy, Pascal,” Lowry said. “Oshae (Brissett) getting an opportunity to play a little bit, Rondae getting an opportunity to be down here, Terence Davis had a great rookie season. But I’m just proud of the coaching staff letting us be us and letting us figure things out. Serge and Marc being who they are. But I’m just really proud of these guys and took this opportunity to become better basketball players, take advantage of the moments.”
Every basketball game is like a differently jumbled Rubik’s cube that you have 48 minutes to solve and the 2019-20 season was littered with examples of the Raptors figuring it out using their collective IQ and talent. Regardless of who was out of the lineup, the next man stepped up and Nurse along with his staff kept opposing coaches constantly having to adjust to his adjustments. There are several different ways to win a basketball game and their job was to find one of them each and every night. It’s another invaluable lesson Toronto learned on their championship run, and a message Lowry consistently preached over the course of their 11 playoff games: every game is its own entity. They never got too high, never too low, and always stayed in the moment.
“I think it’s another good example of the demeanour of this team or maybe our staff and just our mindset,” Nurse said. “I’m thinking about it right now. I already miss this team, you know what I mean? It was a hell of a two-year run with the core group of these guys but I didn’t think that at all here until the game ended. I wasn’t thinking about it being over at all. I was really planning on winning this series and getting ready for Miami tonight when I got back to the hotel.
“Now just thinking back again, a hell of a run for this team and some amazing moments and I think everyone should be really proud of them.”
Five years ago, Paul Pierce proclaimed the Raptors didn’t have ‘it’ and his Washington Wizards proceeded to sweep them out of the first round in a rather meek surrender. Toronto may not have made it as far as they intended, but ‘it’ was written all over this Celtics series. There was Lowry digging deep to play at a superstar level at age 34, VanVleet battling whichever wing player outmatched him in size and strength, Anunoby playing centre because the team needed him to and Ibaka and Powell infusing life into the team with their energy. Even with Pascal Siakam having a nightmare of a series offensively, he still made it tough to be left off the floor with his stellar effort and intensity on the defensive end.
Sometimes your best simply isn’t there and it becomes all about doing what’s necessary. In exhausting every avenue to do what was necessary to force a seventh game, it left the Raptors unable to do either for long enough when they most needed it. They were always going to try, all the way to the bitter end.