Have you ever been trapped in a hole? A deep hole. A hole into which sunlight creeps, but only in shards. It’s dark and smells damp. There’s plenty of air, but for some reason your lungs can’t grasp at it, can’t even inhale, just taking short spurts of nothing with each breath. It’s cold, too. You’re claustrophobic, you realize. It’s never been a problem before, but now you’re shaking and shivering, and your brain is shouting at you even louder than the silence.
If you have ever been trapped in a hole, or if you can even imagine it, then you have some sense of what it is like for the Toronto Raptors to play against the defense of the Boston Celtics.
The Raptors have the power to take your breath away, not just in Scotiabank Arena, surrounded by thousands of frenzied and like-minded pals. Yes, they can choke you when you’re sitting on your couch, alone, in isolation, 2000 kilometres away from the game being played. It can be a good thing or a bad thing, and it was both at points in game six. When it’s going wrong, though, it’s feels as wrong for you as it does for them. That’s fandom.
The Raptors started game six exactly how they started game five: working desperately hard but climbing down, not up, making nothing, and falling further and further into the ground.
“I’ll be honest with you, I can’t believe how important the first 8 to 10 minutes seem,” said Nurse before the game. “I have never, like, I can’t, I just can’t, I almost can’t even fathom it, to be honest with you. So I try to not put it all on that. I think there’s so much more game to play, right?”
“But you look at the four times we’ve lost to these guys, it’s looked identical.”
And game six looked identical again. The Raptors missed easy shots, and for all their effort, they were down double digits midway through the second quarter. Against the Celtics’ defense, Toronto could hardly see the sun. They played as if they were claustrophobic, imprisoned by the length of the Celtics. Panic set in.
The Raptors play with your breath as they flail, trying to climb of the hole. You forget to breathe, sometimes, watching them from half a world away.
Then in the second quarter Serge Ibaka hit one triple, and then another, and a third, and it was a close game once more. The Raptors remembered how to score, got out of their own heads. Game six looked identical to games one and five until Ibaka hit those triples.
“There have been segments of games where we’re just not playing very well. We’re just not ourselves so it’s hard to keep hanging in there on some of that kind of feel right? I thought that first half felt really weird too,” said Nurse.
But after Ibaka’s triples, all the air rushes out of you at once, the air you didn’t know was still in your lungs. You wake up your parents, or your spouse, or your kids, or maybe your dog, but your joy spills out from your body, so stunned and stilled a moment before, into the world around you. The world that no longer includes tens of thousand of Raptors fans all together in the same arena. You’re alone, no longer on your couch, now together with a country all standing in living rooms, hands over heads, frenzied, watching the Raptors in the playoffs.
The thing is, the Raptors realized, you can dig your way out of a hole. It’s hard work, and oxymoronic, but it’s possible. You have to tunnel into the steep vertical incline of a side and bend it, further, further, like pushing over a great earth wall. Set a screen, even though it doesn’t create any space. Keep digging, tunneling, moving one clump of dirt from in front of you to the back. Cut, draw the defense. Eventually the sun will peak through. Shots will open. The great earth wall of the hole will give way, slant upwards. You can see. Breathe. Your lungs fill, empty, fill, empty. Your head quiets. Maybe you sit down again on the couch at some point.
The Raptors dug their way out of a hole on Wednesday night. They were locked underground, but Ibaka found the way out, and the team followed. The Raptors kept digging up. Nick Nurse used a small lineup to close the game, and once he found them, they didn’t leave the court for 14 straight minutes. The game went to overtime, then another. In the end, Lowry was the tip of the shovel, driving upward through the layers of dirt that can feel as immovable steel. He dug and dug until the Raptors tasted air and saw the sun and scored with enough ease to let their defense do the heavy lifting again.
And no matter how hard the Celtics punched, no matter how many Daniel Theis dunks were crammed into your airways in the second overtime, Lowry had an answer. He finished with 33 points, but it could have been 73 for how he controlled the game.
It was the little things for Toronto. Again they couldn’t score, not even a little bit, towards the end of the game. They slipped back down into the pit, let Boston’s defense re-cage them. Their legs were leaden on that end, if spry and maneuverable defensively. They went four minutes without scoring to end the fourth quarter, managed only 17 points over the entire fourth and eight more in the first overtime. The players were tired like marathon runners are tired. Lowry hadn’t left the game since early in the second quarter. Siakam and VanVleet played the whole fourth quarter and both overtimes. All three finished with over 50 minutes played in the game, and Anunoby was 30 seconds away from that mark. To start the second overtime, the Celtics found two easy dunks. The Raptors seemed finished. All their work for not.
But when the earth broke it broke in a tumbling and airy rush. When the Raptors finally climbed out of the ground, weren’t locked away, they realized they could run.
And the Raptors sprinted, fatigue-be-damned, towards the finish line. Anunoby won three jump-balls during the two overtimes, two against Theis and one against Jaylen Brown. Powell and Anunoby hit open triples, and then Powell made a layup in transition plus the foul. Lowry, in a rare moment of honesty with media, told us how he felt after that play.
“F*ck that was great,” said Lowry. “Thank you Norm. That was f*cking unbelievable. Sh*t. That was cool. We needed that.”
Lowry eventually put the Celtics away, hitting a leaping fadeaway out of the post against Kemba Walker. He had played both overtimes with five fouls while attacking the Celtics on the defensive end. His play may not have been bothered by the fouls, but you, on your couch, you must have forgotten to breathe every time Lowry reached to strip a Celtic on the defensive end. He survived. You did too.
So, it’s over now. Breathe. The Raptors are out of the hole, out of the deficit, tied 3-3 and heading to a final game against the Celtics. The idea of facing the Celtics again should be enough to set the Raptors’ hearts racing. Boston’s defense is strong. But the Raptors employ Kyle Lowry. The team is made in his image: resilient, above all else. No matter how deep a hole in which they find themselves, the Raptors are always ready to dig up if need be.