The Raptors are on the ropes, and their bizarre, historic, and protracted title defense is nearing its end. Should this season’s NBA Finals follow its prescribed timetable and conclude in a Game 7, the Raptors will have been champions for approximately 490 days. No other season-long championship defense in NBA history would come within 100 days of that total. But as the team moves past a quarter-century of existence, the Raptors are also barreling toward an indeterminate future, enmeshed in international bureaucracy beyond the league’s control.
The United States–Canada border has been closed to discretionary, nonessential travel since late March. The closure agreement is revisited on a monthly basis, but with tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases still confirmed daily in the U.S., it seems unlikely that the border’s status will change any time soon—not when the closure has been met with overwhelming support from Canadians.
In the interim, Toronto will do what Toronto does: assemble en masse and create a public spectacle out of standing around (or, in this case, sitting). Since the start of the postseason, the Raptors have hosted large-scale drive-in game viewings for its fans on a festival stage platform mere yards from Lake Ontario. Until further notice, Jurassic Park, Toronto’s wildly popular postseason outdoor viewing party, is now Jurassic Parking Lot. “You look out and it’s a sea of cars and people hanging out the windows and out the sunroofs,” Kirk St. Cyr, the Raptors’ longtime in-game DJ, better known as 4Korners, told me. “I don’t know if any other team in the bubble has any hometown gatherings to watch these games like we’re doing here.”
While NBA playoff cities like Milwaukee have created distanced beer gardens outside of the team arena, Toronto’s preexisting infrastructure allowed the Jurassic Parking Lot idea to go from pitch to completion in just two weeks. “This is basically just taking the tailgate model and adapting it— people cannot be standing, now they’re in their cars,” St. Cyr said. “So it’s really not that much different for what we’d do for an away game. It’s just we’re doing this for every game now, because there are no home games.”
Mike Budenholzer left the room in a very different place than he had entered it.
Upon arrival in his postgame media session, when the Milwaukee Bucks coach whose team had the league’s best record this season was minutes removed from a humbling playoff exit in the bubble and about to face an offseason of questions about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future, he was tense and understandably displeased.
“Holy crap …” the 55-year-old had muttered under his breath as he barreled through the doorway to face reporters both in person and in the digital space after the season-ending loss to Miami in Game 5 of this Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But 10 minutes later, after Budenholzer reflected on the special part his team played in NBA history with the Aug. 26 decision to walk out of a first-round game against Orlando because of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., his mood had turned. His eyes welled up. He had to push through his words. It was as if the pain of the season-ending loss was already behind him, replaced by the pride that came with what they had all done.
“That’s a hell of a question,” Budenholzer said to the LA Times’ Dan Woike, who had asked about the dichotomy of emotions that came with this experience. “You know, I think what the team stands for, and I think the character and humanity to stand, and to be on the right side of history like we did, led by George and Sterling and that was emotional. It’s such a great group. I think winning is important. We had high expectations at the start of the season, throughout the season and coming here. You always want to realize those expectations, but the relationships, the character, what this group did, I think — it’d be great if you could have both. But you know, I think if I had to choose one, I’d like to be with guys with high character and who stand for something.”
Imagine the mood swing he must have felt a little later, when Antetokounmpo — who will be offered a supermax extension by the Bucks this offseason and who would be a free agent in the 2021 offseason if he doesn’t sign it — made it clear he has no plans to push his way out in an interview with Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes.
Anunoby’s shot reminded me of something that took place in the United Center media room in October 2019, when the world was young. Sam Smith, the Bulls.com writer who had covered the Michael Jordan era for the Chicago Tribune, walked over to a pair of Toronto writers in town to cover the Raptors’ third regular-season game of the 2019-20 season.
“Has anybody compared the Raptors to the Bulls the year after Jordan’s first retirement?” asked Smith, who you probably remember as a frequent voice in The Last Dance documentary.
Smith’s point was a good one, and not one I had previously considered. What the Raptors have been attempting to accomplish this season seemed to be without much historical precedent. When was the last time that the best player on a championship-winning team just left, as Kawhi Leonard did when he joined the Clippers in free agency last summer? Players just don’t typically bolt from a championship situation. Superstars have generally concluded that the team they won with was a good place to be, professionally speaking.
Why go elsewhere?
Obviously, an exception is really the exception: Jordan, twice. He retired after both of the Bulls three-peats. The second time, after the season chronicled in The Last Dance, the Bulls blew it all up: coach Phil Jackson left the team, while Pippen was traded to Houston. The first time, though, the Bulls tried to repeat without their most important player. There was no fairy tale ending, as the Bulls were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. But that finality came after a commendable if strange, title defence.
“We did a lot of things out there that nobody expected us to,” point guard B.J. Armstrong said after the loss. “And Phil was the glue; he kept us together. He kept us all focused, no matter what else was happening around us.”
Pat Gallen remembers one particular basketball practice at Northeast High School. An 11th grader, Gallen was a member of the junior varsity basketball team. One day in practice a teammate came barreling out of nowhere to dive for a loose ball.
“He hit me right in the face and broke my nose,” Gallen says. “It was only practice. It was only junior varsity. But that was the player he was. That’s all he knew.”
The player who went after the ball was Kyle Lowry. A scrawny ninth grader at the time. Gallen and Lowry were both starters on the team. The following year, the two of them graduated to the varsity team. Gallen was a benchwarmer. Lowry became the star of the team. After starting the year coming off the bench, Lowry became the starting point guard early in the season. Gallen still remembers when his point guard recorded a quadruple double.
“When he got his 10th steal, the entire bench got up and gave him a standing ovation,” Gallen says. “It was like, wow, this kid could be something special.”
After a 112-94 loss on Monday, the Raptors trail 3-2 in their best-of-seven series against the Boston Celtics. One loss away from elimination, the Raptors season would be over already if not for two iconic playoff performances from Lowry in Games 3 and 4.
In Game 3, Lowry put up 31 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals, and finished the game with one of the greatest in-bounds passes in playoff history to OG Anunoby for the game-winner at the buzzer. He followed that up with 22 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks in a Game 4 win. The Raptors won both games to even the series at two.
Throughout this playoff run and over the course of his career, Lowry has also been a game changer on defence, sacrificing his 6-foot, 196 pound body to draw charges on the defensive end. This season, for the second time in three years, Lowry led the league in charges drawn. Whether it is a scrimmage or the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, this has become a signature part of Lowry’s game. It has been that way since he was in high school.
The reigning champs Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are fighting for a place in the Eastern Conference finals. However, to everyone’s surprise, the Raptors went down 2-0 in the series. But they were 2019 champions for a reason and made a stunning comeback by winning back to back games.
After game 5, the series tilted once again in the favor of the Celtics as Jaylen Brown put on a show after a poor game 4 performance. Also, Kemba Walker has been performing at a high level for the Celtics throughout this postseason run.
Now, prior to game 6, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet shared his thoughts on his opponents and the situation in the NBA Bubble. He said:
“Personally speaking, from what I know I like the guys, but right now I hate ’em. I don’t wanna see ’em, I don’t wanna look at ’em, I don’t wanna talk to ’em. So, yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s where we’re at.”
As VanVleet said, it’s all business come playoff time. It doesn’t matter if players are best friends off the court but when they step foot on the court, there should be only one goal in their mind – to win the game.
VanVleet has been terrific for the Raptors ever since the team’s last-year playoff run. This year, he has earned a starting spot in the stacked Raptors rosters and has lived up to expectations. In the 2020 postseason, VanVleet is averaging almost 20ppg while shooting 40.9% from the three-point line.
If the Toronto Raptors are panicking after getting bombed out by the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of their second-round series — putting them on the brink of elimination in a playoff series for the first time since Game 7 against the 76ers last year — they sure don’t sound like it.
“Honestly, it wasn’t as crazy as it felt,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet Tuesday afternoon. “When you watch the film it’s pretty simple, you know, we miss a couple layups, they make a couple layups, we miss a three, they make a three, we go in soft and they go down and dunk it. It’s pretty simple stuff that we can fix and correct.
“We give them credit for playing a good game, but I don’t think they played outstanding, they didn’t play, like, out of the world. We just played like crap and they played good. It was that simple.”
An honest assessment from VanVleet of how his team performed in Game 5 and, yes, though there was a lot that went wrong Monday, it’s not like Toronto can’t clean things up, just because Game 6 comes with higher stakes.
“I mean, listen, I don’t think any assessment of that game would be wrong,” said VanVleet. “Like, you could pick your poison. There were holes all over the place, there’s bad play everywhere, so you can pick whatever you want, whether it was shot-making, bad defence, no effort, soft, not physical, you name it, it was about as bad as it gets for us.
“The good thing about it is it only counts for one and we’ve got to turn it around and play better tomorrow.”
Fred VanVleet is a stone-cold sniper and will be slept on no longer. Through the 2019-20 campaign, VanVleet wasn’t the only Toronto Raptors player to gain much-needed respect. Almost every rotation player, save for Marc Gasol, saw a notable increase, a testament to the team’s championship caliber depth.
We’ve listed the entire roster with comparisons to last year’s launch rating below. We’ve also identified some general NBA 2K21 ratings trends for the league as a whole.
While the NBA attempted to create a “home” environment in the NBA bubble in Florida, it has largely fallen flat. Teams that worked hard in the regular season to secure home court for the playoffs have no advantage. At Walt Disney World, it’s tough to determine which team is home and which is away.
“I don’t think (we’re) heading for rocket science territory if we say this is the most strange playoffs ever,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Tuesday, on the eve of Toronto’s do-or-die Game 6 versus the Celtics.
“It has been a strange series with the way the games have been played, but everything’s been abnormal, right? Almost forgot we were the home team (Monday) night, I think if I’m not mistaken, the quote-unquote road team has won every game in this series, right?”
For Toronto, home court has meant fans dressed mostly in red. “Defence!” — rather than “Defense!” with the American spelling — has flashed across the giant video screens.
That little bit hasn’t help as the Raptors are 0-3 against Boston in their home games.
There’s no making up for Scotiabank Arena, which boasts one of the best fan bases in the league. Or Jurassic Park, where thousands of fans would’ve lined up for hours to squeeze into Maple Leaf Square outside the arena to watch the game on the giant screen.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens agreed that home and road “doesn’t mean anything here.
“It’s nice to have the backgrounds and all that other stuff but, to be honest with you, I can’t even hear any of it or really pay much attention to it after maybe the starting lineups are announced, which are odd anyways because there’s nobody clapping,” Stevens said with a laugh.
The bubble crowd will put a disappointing postseason down to the pressure of being cooped up for going on three months. They will point out that because they were not allowed to open camp in Canada, the Raptors have been in Florida’s medium-opulence prison two weeks longer than any other NBA team.
The distance between the metronome that was the regular-season Raptors and the erratic team that faced the Celtics will be put down to unusual times. In this telling, Toronto didn’t lose. The pandemic won.
The scapegoat crowd will point to the fact that Siakam, ostensibly the Raptors’ best player, started his fall vacation several weeks early.
After a wretched Game 5 performance, head coach Nick Nurse – a steady cheerleader for all his players – had begun giving up on him. The usual ‘He’ll figure it out’ patter gave way to a new line of ‘I don’t know why he didn’t figure it out’ shoulder shrugging. Nurse wasn’t throwing his guy under the bus, but he wasn’t trying to lift one off him either.
On Tuesday, Fred VanVleet worked to spread the pain around a bit more.
“I don’t think any assessment of [Game 5] would be wrong,” VanVleet said. “It was about as bad as it gets.”
This isn’t exactly new territory for this club. Lots of Raptors have failed in the playoffs (and lots more failed before they got that far).
For several long years before he became a playoff pitbull, Kyle Lowry was a charter member of the having-a-bad-night-at-the-worst-possible-time club.
A few Raptors have intermittently continued this tradition through the current glory days. Marc Gasol is mediocre just as (more?) often than he is good. VanVleet didn’t show up last year until the conference finals. Serge Ibaka lets his body play 20 minutes in a game, but occasionally gives his basketball smarts a few of them off.
The Raptors centre arrived to his virtual media session with reporters on Tuesday wearing a walking boot on his left foot, saying he twisted the ankle in Monday night’s Game 5 loss. He said he was unsure about his status for Game 6.
“I will see how I wake up [Wednesday], because it’s different. When it happened last night, I felt like I could still play,” Ibaka said. “Then today, this morning, it changed a little bit. So let’s see [game day] when I wake up.”
If Ibaka is limited – or can’t play it all – it’s a serious blow to the Raptors’ chances of staving off elimination in their roller-coaster best-of-seven series inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble. The defending NBA champions trail 3-2 after a lopsided 111-89 Monday night loss, in which they looked lethargic and struggled to score – other concerns the Raps must address before tip-off.
Others within the Raptors sounded optimistic that Ibaka will be in the lineup when his team battles to keep its season alive.
“Obviously we need him out there. I haven’t spoken to him about how he’s feeling or anything, but just knowing him personally I would be surprised if he wasn’t out there,” Fred VanVleet said on Tuesday. “Serge is probably the best I’ve ever seen at taking care of his body, recovering, following his routine. So hopefully he can get back feeling good today and be ready for us tomorrow.”
In this Eastern Conference semifinal series, Ibaka has averaged 11.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 23.3 minutes off the bench. Through their nine playoff games, Ibaka has been the Raps’ leading rebounder with an average 8.2 for each contest.
The Celtics lost in the conference finals in both 2017 and ’18 before being eliminated in the semifinals by the Bucks last season. Despite being a win away from advancing, Boston isn’t resting on its laurels.
“The job’s not finished yet,” swingman Jaylen Brown told reporters. “We’ve still got a lot of work that needs to be done.”
The Raptors have already shown this series they can’t be counted out. Down 2-0 after two games, Toronto won Game 3 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from OG Anunoby — the tail end of a play that began with 0.5 seconds left on the clock. The Raptors rode that momentum to a strong showing in their Game 4 win but fell flat out of the gate in Game 5, scoring just 11 points in the first quarter and trailing by as much as 30 down the stretch.
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“You never flush it; you learn from it,” said point guard and team leader Kyle Lowry. “Every single game is a different game. … Make adjustments, continue to grow and figure it out. Right now we are in a brink of elimination, literally fighting for our lives right now on the basketball floor. It’s win or go home.”
Toronto never faced a 3-2 deficit on its path toward its first NBA championship a season ago. Throughout the series, the team has leaned heavily on Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, with each member of the trio averaging above or near 40 minutes a game. Their importance is even greater after key reserve Serge Ibaka showed up at practice Tuesday wearing a walking boot, the result of a twisted ankle sustained in Game 5.
Ibaka is listed as questionable for Wednesday night.
“We’ll just wait and see on that,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “But same as always, if he’s there, we’ll play him. I think there’s a good chance of that. If not, we’ll move on to the next guy and get them ready to go.”
The Celtics are similarly leaning on their Big Three of Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to get through to the next round. Brown, held to 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting in Game 4, responded with a game-high 27 points in Monday’s blowout win.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you already knew that Antetokounmpo is slowly approaching free agency after the 2020-21 season. Yes, it’s still a full season away, and yes the Bucks are the only team in the league that can offer Giannis a five-year extension worth $247.3 million. But with Giannis once again struggling in the playoffs and Milwaukee on the brink of falling short of the NBA Finals for a second consecutive season, people are talking.
Rumours around the Disney World bubble say that the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat have emerged as favourites to land the “Greek Freak” and those rumours are being supported by Vegas. According to SportsBetting.ag, The Heat have the best odds to land Giannis at +300 (wager $10 to win $30), with the Raptors right on their tail at +400. Listed at +500 are the New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks (yeah, right), and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors appear so high on the list for a number of reasons, Antetokounmpo’s relationship with Masai Ujiri is no secret, Nick Nurse has taken the team from being pretenders to contenders, the young and fun “Bench Mob” from a few seasons ago are now experienced vets with championship pedigrees, and the team only has $46 million committed to salaries after next season.
Notable longshots are the Los Angeles Clippers at +800, the Lakers at +1000, Golden State Warriors at +1200 and Brooklyn Nets at +2500.
A few things that should jump out:
Siakam isn’t getting out in transition nearly as much. He is averaging 2.7 points per game in transition in the playoffs, which is less than half (5.8) of what he averaged in the regular season.
Siakam is creating a lot more offence for himself. In the post, mostly. Siakam is averaging 4.4 post-up possessions per game in the playoffs, putting him behind only Joel Embiid (9.8), Nikola Vucevic (5.0) and Al Horford (4.5) – three traditional centres – for most in the league.
Siakam’s jump shot has disappeared. He’s spotting-up more in the playoffs, but he ranks in the 10th percentile with an average of 0.71 points per spot-up possession. According to NBA.com, he’s 9-for-33 on catch-and-shoot 3s and 0-for-13 on pull-up 3s. His inability to make pull-ups is particularly concerning because his growth as an off-the-dribble 3-point shooter was a huge part of his development into an All-Star this season.
Siakam’s pick-and-rolls are down. Like, way down, to the point where Kyle Lowry said after Game 5 that the Raptors need to get Siakam more pick-and-rolls.
Through that lens, it’s not a surprise that Siakam has struggled at times. It might not explain why he has struggled as much as he has, but taking away his strengths and forcing him to play more to his weaknesses was clearly a focus of the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and has been a focus of the Boston Celtics in the second round.
More than anything, it might explain why Siakam has “been so out of rhythm” lately – the transition opportunities he feasted on during the regular season have dried up, taking him out of his comfort zone.
They see the Celtics in the lobby of their shared Disney hotel. They cross paths going to and coming from practice. They’ll bump into each other on walks or while grabbing a bite to eat. Brad Stevens even spotted Nick Nurse riding his bike as he took a morning stroll the other day.
“Personally speaking, from what I know, I like the guys [on the Celtics], but right now I hate ‘em,” Toronto’s Fred VanVleet said on Tuesday, roughly 30 hours before his Raptors aim to keep their season – and championship defence – alive in a must-win Game 6 of their second-round series, which Boston leads 3-2.
“I don’t wanna see ‘em. I don’t wanna look at ‘em. I don’t wanna talk to ‘em. So yeah, it’s a little weird, but this is where we’re at.
”Nothing about this series – or the NBA postseason in general – has felt normal, which is fitting given the circumstances. What is normal these days, anyway?
“I don’t think [we’re] heading for rocket-science territory if we say this is the [strangest] playoffs ever,” said Nurse. “It has been a strange series, with the way the games have been played, but everything’s been abnormal, right?”
Through five games, the Raptors have sandwiched three entertaining, hard-fought performances – two of them resulting in wins – in between a couple of embarrassing blowout defeats. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong in those bad losses, which makes it impossible to see them coming or know how to prevent them from happening.
The simplest explanation for Games 1 and 5 is that Boston came out with a greater sense of purpose and took Toronto out of its comfort zone early with its stifling defence. The Raptors missed shots they’re used to making, got frustrated and lost their composure.
However, there’s more to it than that – an intangible concept that teams shouldn’t have trouble mustering up at this time of the season, let alone the defending champs. Does it really come down to effort or energy level?
“I think a lot of this game, in general, has to do with – and you always hear me talking about – energy and rhythm,” Nurse said. “It’s kind of hard to explain how we don’t have a little bit more energy [on Monday], and it’s even probably harder to explain how we don’t have it in Game 1 of the series, either, or really hard to explain how we don’t have it in Game 2 in Milwaukee last year, and Game 4 in Philly. The energy has gotta be there. I think when we do bring the energy, we’re right there, we’re super competitive, for sure, and look great.”
The Toronto Raptors are struggling mightily to score against the Boston Celtics. It’s the main reason they trail their second-round series 3-2, and it’s very likely going to cost them their season — unless they can survive a pair of elimination games beginning with Game 6 Wednesday night.
So, it’s time for Marc Gasol to wear it, or at least some of it.
Understand: The Raptors aren’t slumping offensively, they are cratering.
They are the worst offensive team remaining in the NBA post-season and against the Celtics they are averaging just 99.4 points per 100 possessions — a rate that would have them trail the worst offensive team in the regular season by five points per 100 possessions.
Defensively the Raptors remain ‘fine.’ They are limiting the Celtics to 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which trails the Raptors’ 104.7 regular-season mark but would still be good for 4th in the NBA.
But their offensive woes are so pronounced that their net-rating is -7.4 — the same as the 20-win Atlanta Hawks this season.
And how much better would their defence be if the Raptors could force Boston to take the ball out of their own net a little more, rather than pushing the ball ahead off of misses and attacking while the Raptors scramble to get set?
Things could get worse, too, as the other member of the Raptors’ centre tandem, Serge Ibaka — you know, the one who can score a little — had a walking boot on his left ankle Tuesday and is questionable for Game 6.
Ibaka has been a bright spot for the Raptors on offence, chipping in with 11.8 points per game on 51.2 per cent shooting overall and 50 per cent from three, continuing a run of mostly positive play ever since the seeding games began back on Aug. 1.
A failure to this degree has many parents, obviously, and the Celtics are a good enough defensive team to bury all but the most lethal attacks — a category the Raptors don’t fall into.
But so far the only Raptors performing at or above regular-season levels against Boston have been Ibaka and OG Anunoby. To varying degrees Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell have been held responsible after games when they’ve struggled and to their credit each has had corresponding high points — Powell perhaps the exception so far, but at least the Raptors’ leading regular-season bench scorer keeps looking to score.