In a Grand Slam tennis match, where a champion takes on a rising star, one cannot understate the importance of experience. Sure, the younger player may bring the fearlessness in a best-of-five-set match to pull off the upset. That earlier on in the match, their powerful shots may get the older player on his heels. But as the match goes deeper and longer, the championship pedigree shines through, as the experienced player prevails. No matter the physical toll an older player endures in a long five-set match, being a Grand Slam champion brings its advantages versus a younger opponent.
The Toronto Raptors are the Grand Slam champion, whose championship DNA allows them to conquer in-game obstacles. We’ve seen in their second-round series the Boston Celtics, a young, pesky, talented opponent, put the Raptors up against the reality of defeat.
But in classic Raptors fashion, they never quit.
Down 0-2 in the series, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry saved their season, thanks to his inbound, cross-court pass over Celtics center Tacko Fall to OG Anunoby, who converted the buzzer-beating three-pointer. In Game 6, down 3-2 in the series, the Raptors were down four points at the half and trailed the Celtics in both of the overtimes.
Thanks to monster performances from Lowry and backup point guard Norman Powell, the Raptors prevailed 125-122 in double overtime, forcing a do-or-die Game 7 against the Celtics.
“Listen, we love to compete,” Nurse said to reporters pregame. “There’s our love and our joy right there, and it doesn’t get any more competitive than this. It’s a good team, we’ve gotta win to keep our season alive, so yeah, it’s gonna be awful hard work. We’ve gotta find the joy and love in that, for sure.”
Kyle Lowry’s Brilliance
Game 6 against the Celtics was a vintage “Kyle Lowry over Everything” performance. Lowry posted 33 points, eight rebounds, and six assists on 12-of-20 shooting from the floor and 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. Most notably, Lowry played 53 minutes, at 34 years old.
Six players, including Lowry, went 53 minutes in a playoff game as a 34-year-old. This list includes Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Robert Parish, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Russell.
On both ends of the floor, Lowry demonstrated tremendous grit and hustle.
Lowry from deeeep. Good signs here in the third. pic.twitter.com/1RVlUn8BMy
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) September 10, 2020
As the Raptors went on their run in the third quarter, Lowry made some critical threes. As seen above, Lowry is at the right-wing spot with Marcus Smart guarding him. Pascal Siakam smartly decides to set a screen on Smart, preventing him from contesting the Lowry shot. The Raptor point guard drained the deep three, a spot he felt comfortable shooting from during the game.
Defensively, Lowry took charges and forced turnovers, pillars that are a part of any of his landmark performances. Lowry also took advantage of Daniel Theis being slow switching off of the Anunoby screen, which led to the Raptor point guard forcing the Celtics center to foul him twice in this game.
Lowry’s highlight came in the closing stretch of double overtime, where he converted a dagger fadeaway jumper to put the Raptors up five with 11.7 seconds to go.
KYLE LOWRY. ICE COLD 🥶 pic.twitter.com/7t8LGoYWOI
— ESPN (@espn) September 10, 2020
Here, Lowry decides to post up with Kemba Walker on him. The Celtics are guarding the other Raptor players, meaning Lowry has to operate in isolation in the post. Theis, whose help-conscious, blocks the lane to the rim, meaning all Lowry can do is fadeaway shoot. He had Walker’s number on the post-up plays all night, sealing the Raptors’ victory.
Playoff Powell Returns
Through the first five games of the Celtics series, Norman Powell averaged a mere 5.8 points per game. Nurse said during the series that he was looking for “a wild card” to emerge from the Raptors role players.
Powell delivered in Game 6, putting up 23 points, 15 of which occurred in the two overtime periods. He shot the ball with no hesitation from beyond the arc, going 3-of-6 shooting from three.
Nurse elected to use Powell as part of his smaller lineup in the fourth quarter and two overtimes. The big concern for Powell was whether his defense can keep up against the Celtics top scorers. His defending is inconsistent but Nurse after the game said that Powell’s defense in Game 6 was “solid.”
Norman Powell with the TOUGH finish 😤 pic.twitter.com/e0gGsBNfAF
— NBA TV (@NBATV) September 10, 2020
No better example than with 44 seconds remaining in double overtime. Jayson Tatum moves around the Lowry screen to attempt a drive into the paint. Powell cuts Tatum’s path and strips the ball out of his hands. This leads Powell to use his speed in transition to draw the Smart foul while throwing the ball up underneath the rim for the “and one.”
“F– that was great,” Lowry said on the Powell “and-one.” “Thank you, Norm. That was f—— unbelievable. S–t. That was cool. We needed that.”
Surprising to some, Powell was also used on an “iso” play at the end of the first overtime, to pull up and shoot a potential buzzer-beating shot. While Powell missed, Nurse showed trust in his Raptor guard, as he did in night one of the season against the New Orleans Pelicans, when Powell missed a game-winning attempt. In those situations, running an “iso” play for Powell doesn’t yield as high a percentage as going through Lowry for big shots. Hence why in double overtime, it was Lowry who had the ball to make the dagger shot.
The Small Lineup
Zarar does a nice job breaking down in-depth the benefit of subbing out Serge Ibaka for OG Anunoby at the five spot in “Five Minute Analysis.”
Nurse said after the game that he wanted to use this lineup for some time now but couldn’t find the appropriate time to pull the trigger until Game 6. While Ibaka was solid offensively (13 points, 5-of-9 FG, 3-of-5 3FG), he got exploited on the defensive end because he was drive-conscious, sagging back in the paint and leaving the corners open for three-pointers.
Going with Anunoby allowed for more speed and versatility. He guarded Walker one-on-one to avoid penetration into the paint, while contesting shots inside with his length, most notably challenging Walker’s drive to the basket before the Powell turnover at the end of the game.
By having Anunoby in the game helping out on the drive, it does leave the Raptors interior presence vulnerable. The size mismatch led to four alley oops, most notably from Theis who was wide open on the baseline. You have to give up something and Nurse believed that Ibaka’s rebounding ability and size inside wasn’t as important as Anunoby’s speed and coverage on the corners. Ultimately, the decision to go small paid off for the Raptors.
Pascal Siakam’s Defense
Pascal Siakam’s offensive woes continued in Game 6. Whenever he got the ball to post up, he didn’t look confident in the paint, which led to turnovers and missed shots.
Where Siakam shined in Game 6 was his defense, especially on Tatum.
Did Nick Nurse just bait Tatum into that pass lol pic.twitter.com/VPN5GdxqsG
— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) September 10, 2020
As seen above, Siakam uses his length to prevent Tatum from driving to the basket. Instead, he has to go to his left where Siakam and Anunoby both guard him. This forces Tatum to throw the ball out of bounds, leading to a turnover.
From his rotations to the rim to recovering above the break to contest threes, Siakam was the Raptors’ best defender in Game 6. It’s not surprising he was a +12 in the game, given his impact on the defensive end.
For the second straight year, the Toronto Raptors are in a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. While the opponent is different and the Raptors do not have Kawhi Leonard, their resilience cannot be understated.
In a win-or-go-home situation, the Raptors must rely on Lowry to run the offense, particularly down the stretch when the team needs baskets. Going small worked in Game 6 to match up better defensively against the Celtics, but whether it was the solution to stymie their scoring remains to be seen.
Like in the fifth set of a tennis match, all bets are off. When it comes to the Raptors, relying on that championship pedigree gives them more than just a chance to secure their second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals berth.