The NBA playoffs have a thickness, a texture, to the atmosphere. Like ozone wrapping protectively around us, or a carbon monoxide leak. It swims into your brain, intoxicates you up and down. An infection, wrangling and writhing and pulsing, the building shaking, but the players placid, stoic, serious. Or shaking themselves, caving to the moment. The NBA playoffs are addicting and appealing and can leave a viewer erratic or elated for days.
Yet somehow the Toronto Raptors’ 104-99 win over the Brooklyn Nets didn’t feel like the playoffs. Aside from a few high points, such as Norm Powell and OG Anunoby dunks, both teams lacked energy. The game itself lacked flow. It could be that the 203 total points were the lowest combined total that the Raptors have recorded since March. That’s playoff basketball, though. Slow. A grind. The Raptors are equipped to play those games.
The Raptors spent three and a half quarters trailing the Brooklyn Nets, yet the game never seemed out of reach. No one panicked. The Raptors were always a punch out of the game, and it was clear that the punch would come. Toronto kept circling and circling until the wagons showed a crack and the wolves pounced.
“It was funky, and that’s what you do: you keep searching and searching and searching,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “We were searching for a spark. But we finally found it.”
Toronto still won the game, despite not leading until the fourth quarter. Fred VanVleet carried the team for a long time. After VanVleet rained fire from deep against the drop defense in game one, the Nets switched against his screens in game two. VanVleet used that space to slice to the rim past a hapless Jarrett Allen and show off his layup package around the rim. Despite VanVleet’s heroics to keep the Raptors alive, they spent the majority of the game lackadaisical, almost disinterested. The defensive side of the court was full of mistakes.
Brooklyn scored 33 points in the first quarter, as Toronto’s defensive errors piled. OG Anunoby missed a weak-side tag, allowing Jarrett Allen a free lane for the lob dunk. Caris LeVert scored 10 points and gathered five assists in the first, shooting over VanVleet, and dishing to his bigs if Marc Gasol stepped up to help.
Toronto’s offense was just as disconnected, like tectonic plates drifting apart with a rumble and a sigh. Very few possessions involved the pretty, penetrate-pass-pass sequences that Toronto loves to use to create open triples, and when the Raptors did create with those looks, they missed their triples. In fact, the Raptors shot just 9-of-35 from deep, good for 25.7 percent from deep.
Perhaps the energy in the building lagged because the Raptors failed to land the knockout blow. So often, the Raptors tied the game, 34-34, 45-45, 53-53, 80-80, without taking the lead. The Raptors would waste the next possession, flinging the ball at the net, committing turnovers, with no real hope of taking the lead. The opportunity for energy existed, but Toronto couldn’t capitalize. Part of the problem was the play of Toronto’s supporting offensive players. Gasol scored zero points and was a confounding defensive negative, too. It was a rare sight. Serge Ibaka only scored eight. OG Anunoby six. Toronto’s offense ground to a halt whenever the Nets took the ball out of VanVleet’s or Pascal Siakam’s hands, and the Nets would whiz into the lead again after a triple from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, or more often Garrett Temple.
Eventually the Raptors caught up. It was inevitable. The Raptors tied the game in the fourth as Powell hit a pair of pull-up jumpers, and then a lineup with Anunoby at center blitzed past the Nets, seizing the game late, before making sure by ripping the ball away when Brooklyn needed a triple to tie. The fivesome of Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, and Anunoby were Toronto’s best five players in the game, despite having played a grand total of seven minutes together – in 2018-19. (They won that stretch by seven points, by the way.)
“OG was doing such a good job on LeVert, even though he wasn’t scoring much he had to be out there; Freddy and Kyle had to be out there, Norm had to be out there and Pascal had a decent game going,” explained Nurse.
The win shouldn’t have ever been in doubt, and as a result Toronto took the lead in almost ho-hum fashion. It was just business. That doesn’t mean it isn’t encouraging.
The biggest worries during the seeding section of the bubble — if worrying is even reasonable when the Toronto Raptors went 7-1 — were the play of Pascal Siakam and the performance of the bench. And you can read today’s piece about Siakam’s play here. But Powell dominating against the Nets a balm for a worried soul, as long as the worry was about Toronto’s bench scoring. It helps, of course, to play an undermanned Brooklyn Nets. But 24 points is 24 points, and Powell needs to be a leader on the offensive end for Toronto to compete in later rounds. He tied VanVleet for the team lead, and he did it on a night where shot only one-of-six from deep. Hitting 10-of-11 from two-point range helped, and it was all the more impressive, perhaps, that he scored so well when his jumper wasn’t falling. That Powell is rounding back into form is one of the most important outcomes Toronto could have sought coming into this Nets series.
The game was low-energy, but it was a win, and that’s what matters.
The thing is, unlike some would-be contenders in the West, the Raptors don’t need the frenzy of the crowd, the motivation of a full arena, to win basketball games.
“I always say there’s a lot of ways to win a game, and you just got to find one of them,” said Nurse. “There’s usually somewhere around a million different ways to win a game, and you just got to find one of them, and tonight was a different way to do it, right?”
The Raptors found a way to win the game. It was slow and ugly, but it was a win. That game may not buzz in your head for days like a gnat, the highlights replayed in your mind like a thick, soothing cloud of vapour. But the games don’t need to be thrilling to matter. The real excitement is yet to come.