Fight, Lowry, Fight
Everything is revolving around Kyle Lowry, same as it ever was.
Lowry has been terrific for Toronto in this series — statue good — at times looking like his will and guile could be enough to get the team over the hump. That so much of the Raptors’ ability to stay alive has revolved around Lowry’s orbit is fitting in this year more than any other. It is a perfect post-championship reminder that Lowry has always been the driving force on the court, helping pull the Raptors to relevance, driving performance through bad playoff series and good (yes, even when his shooting slumped), changing his role on the fly to suit DeMar DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, there is no end to how Lowry has expanded possibilities for the Raptors.
Keeping the window open for a championship repeat would be his greatest act yet. And he’s damn sure trying — the Raptors have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the floor this postseason and been outscored by 0.3 when he sits. Against Boston, the Raptors have nearly played even (-1.0) with Lowry and been run off the court whenever he sits (-28.3 in 45 minutes). This is Raptors-Heat 2016 levels of extreme, pushing Lowry’s on-off over the seven postseasons in this run to 14.5 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats. We’re talking seven playoffs, 15 series and over 4,000 minutes, enough to rank Lowry sixth in Jacob Goldstein’s postseason Player Impact Plus-Minus, 11th in VORP and 12th in win shares in that span.
Historically, Lowry has saved his best for games where the Raptors’ backs are against the wall. Look at Lowry’s best career playoff games by StatHead‘s Game Score and the top of the list is full of the highest-leverage games.
Lowry also had a big close-out game against Washington in 2018, two more monsters against Miami in 2016 (Games 5 and 6) and another Finals game with a game score of 20 (Game 3). Lowry’s 16 playoff games with a game score of 20 or more ranks 17th in the league over the last seven years and his seven at age 33 or older rank 15th all-time.
As some of Philly’s other finest foretold, expect Lowry to come out swinging.
On some level, that has to be difficult for Siakam to accept. This was Siakam’s first year as the highest-usage player on his team, and he actually took Kyle Lowry’s role as the Raptor who had the most obvious impact on team performance. The Raptors just completed their best regular season in franchise history and he was a huge reason why.
That is not to say he has not had an impact on this series, but in the ways in which we have been scrutinizing him, he has undeniably struggled. To be taking a smaller role and not even having the bump in efficiency you would expect has to be frustrating, although it is understandable since the latter seems to be causing the former, and not the other way around.
Yet, the series dictates this from Siakam. There is probably an overwhelming urge to try to take over Game 7, to redeem himself after a poor series. It is possible the game will unfold like that. More likely however, he will have to continue to try to fit in when and where he can. He might even have to be more selective, given how the series has treated him.
“Like I said, if we could win a game (Wednesday), there’d be … possibly a lot more basketball to play, and another chance to change your narrative about yourself and how you’ve played if you want to,” Nurse said prior to Game 6. “If you need to.”
Walker’s teammates did their best to pick him up, but they still played their part in Boston’s loss. Jayson Tatum finished with an eye-popping stat line — 29 points, 14 rebounds and 9 assists — but made a critical turnover late in the second overtime, driving when it appeared he had an open shot, leading to a steal that turned into a Norman Powell and-1 layup at the other end.
Jaylen Brown, on the other hand, finished with 31 points — but went 11-for-30 from the field. And while Marcus Smart had a terrific game, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, it was his foul on Powell with 38.8 seconds left that helped give Toronto the distance it needed to edge out Boston for the win.
After the game, Smart got into it with the Raptors after getting tangled up with center Marc Gasol on the final play, causing both teams to come together before eventually separating.
Apparently, 58 minutes on the court together Wednesday night wasn’t quite enough for everyone.
“A lot of emotions and things like that swirling,” Brown said, when asked about what happened after the game. “I ain’t gonna really speak on it too much, but it’s a lot of emotions and it’s an intense series, so things like that tend to happen. A lot of testosterone, etc.
“We gotta be ready to fight. That’s a respectable organization, I expect them to act accordingly, etc. Things seemed to get out of hand at times, from coaching staffs, etc. Let’s keep it under control; let’s keep playing basketball; let’s be ready to fight.”
If Game 6 was any indication, there will be a pair of teams ready to fight for another 48 minutes — and then some — to see who will advance to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Miami Heat next week.
Once Lowry is in the spot, he hits Walker with a subsequent backdown and plants his foot to launch into the turnaround. He does the same thing in the second play to ice the game, getting to that hash mark, hitting Walker with a second bump while planting the foot for the turnaround. Walker contests both shots perfectly, but Lowry fought to get close enough on the back-down that he could hit that if a tidal wave was closing in on him.
This is why the Celtics need to fight to avoid unnecessary pre-switches in Game 7. The Lowry game-clincher never needed to be switched by Smart at the beginning of the possession. They need to make Lowry and VanVleet fight to earn that switch, which will both waste extra time and minimize the number of instances where Walker is exposed in a more difficult matchup.
But Lowry isn’t the only player who can find an automatic shot in crunch time. Great scorers have these on-court parameters, and Walker is one of them as well. After a crunch-time blunder on a Pascal Siakam-Vanvleet pick-and-roll, Walker responded by going to his equivalent of that Lowry post-up isolation. Walker saw the shot clock winding down and knew he had to get it off immediately. Most players would panic into hucking up a contested 3, but Walker is too composed for that. He squares up Anunoby, hits him with a violent low crossover to his weak hand, drives to that spot in the middle of the free throw line and then pushes off for a step-back. Walker got the ball up with 0.5 seconds left on the shot clock, with Anunoby’s fingers half a foot from the ball.
The Celtics held the upper hand in this series, winning the first two games and were on the precipice of obtaining a 3-0 lead when OG Anunoby’s game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer changed the trajectory of the series.
Boston will now have to bounce back from another difficult defeat, but their confidence still remains high.
“We have a good group of guys,” said Kemba Walker. “We love playing basketball with each other. We love making each other better. I know we’ll respond. We’re going to come out and play hard again.”
The Celtics can’t imagine the what-ifs or what-could-have-beens if one or two things in the series had gone differently. They are in the position they are in and that won’t change.
Boston’s young stars and the surrounding cast are staring down a pivotal Game 7 and there’s only one thing left for them to do.
“You’ve got to embrace the challenge,” Brown said. “This is what adversity is about. This is what basketball is about. This is what life it about. You get put in tough situations, you can’t complain. Some days don’t go your way, but you can stand up and fight the next day, fight tomorrow. … This is all a part of embracing the challenge. And that’s what we’ve got to do is embrace it so we can get ready to come back and give everything for Game 7.”
Seemingly throughout this entire series against the Boston Celtics, All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry has been out to prove to the masses why he should be considered as the greatest Toronto Raptor of all time.
His heroics in game six could very well be seen as the icing on the cake in that argument.
Logging an astonishing 53 minutes, Lowry boasted an impressive stat line of 33 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block on 60 percent shooting from the field and a whopping 60 percent shooting from downtown.
It seemed like no matter which defensive set the Cs threw at him, or how gelatin-esque his legs may have appeared, the 14th-year veteran always found a way to have the ball meet nylon.
In order for Boston to have so much as a chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, one of their biggest tasks in this highly publicized game seven will be to find a way to contain the perennial All-Star.
A tough task indeed, but as we’ve seen in this series already it is achievable.
In each of their three wins in the Semifinals, the Cs have managed to hold Lowry to averages of 14.3 points on 36 percent shooting from the floor and 13 percent shooting from deep.
In comparison, during Toronto’s three victories, the point guard has boasted exceptional averages of 28.7 points on 51 percent shooting from the floor and 43 percent shooting from deep.
To attain this highly coveted game seven victory, the Boston Celtics need to key in on controlling the crowned king of the north.
It seems to be the difference between skating on an ice rink and walking on a frozen lake when you’re unsure if it’s fully solid. Stevens has to be careful with the steps he’s taking with is team knowing that if he exerts too much pressure, it might crack. These Celtics, though, seem to be holding together.
“You know the physical toughness it takes, the emotional toughness it takes, the mental toughness it takes,” Stevens said. “I believe that we have that.”
Game 7 will be the truest test of his faith in his team. Mental fortitude is easy when you’re rested and comfortable. Everyone is ready to seize the day after a few days off and a solid eight hours of sleep. How ready will these guys be when home is around the corner and the lactic acid from 50 minutes of intense playoff basketball still hasn’t fully cleared?
“We’re going to watch film and we’re going to mentally prepare,” Stevens said. “They played all over 50 minutes, too. It is what it is right? There are a lot of breaks in that game. We go to the monitor a ton in the NBA. We check everything. And so, like, there’s a lot of time to get rest. Just because you played 50 minutes, all that means is the next day you have to be smart about your day. So we’ll be smart about today. We’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
There are no more secrets in this series. There might be some fine-tuning and points of emphasis. The game film will reveal mistakes. But there aren’t any more “ah ha” moments by Game 7. This is a true test of wills. This is when the old trope of wanting it more actually means something.
“These are great opportunities. These are things, like, when you’re a kid, this is what you want to do,” Stevens said. “It’s funny, out of the last four weeks I think I slept better last night than I’ve slept at any time because I knew we competed. I know there are things we can clean up, but I’m also looking forward to this because this is what you’re here for.”
NBA rules call for a technical foul to be assessed to a head coach for leaving the coaches box, though that call is rarely made. Nurse pushed the limit so much that he probably deserved one, but the refs didn’t call it with a playoff series on the line.
Ultimately, the Celtics can’t really use this as an excuse for why they lost. Boston and Toronto each had plenty of chances to put away the game before Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry officially extended the Raptors’ season in double overtime. This was perhaps the very best game of the bubble so far, in large part because both head coaches are so sharp.
The margins are razor thin in this series. When every little advantage counts for so much, count on Nurse to find them.
Siakam wasn’t the guy. OG Anunoby was a shot creator in double OT. Norm Powell exploded, and got a chance to win it in overtime. Kyle Lowry was the one bulling his way into the lane, pulling up threes, canning the turnaround jumper that sealed it, cementing his legacy. Offensively, Lowry held the line, all through the game. Siakam, averaging 15.2 points per game in the series, hung around.
It keeps happening. In this Celtics series, his three-point game has deserted him, at 4-for-31. His post-ups have often been exercises in slow frustration against physical defenders like Smart and Brown. His drives haven’t reliably generated clean airspace. His finishing has been poor. Mostly, it has looked as though Siakam’s dribbling and shooting aren’t enough of a passport right now, and he can’t get out of it. Siakam has Toronto’s worst true shooting percentage, combining two- and three-point field goals plus free throws, at .430, versus .554 in the regular season. Fred VanVleet is shooting 34 per cent from the field and looks dead-legged, and he has still been a more efficient offensive player than Siakam.
There are those who believe the forward was not in shape to begin this restart — Nurse said Wednesday the pandemic hadn’t been as good to Siakam as others — and that he just hasn’t caught up. Still, Nurse thinks Siakam is getting closer to himself, even if he’s not there yet.
“I think the main thing for him is he gets (shot attempts) in a variety of ways,” Nurse said.
“For me, his game is getting them in transition, getting some pass-aheads, bringing the ball himself, playing some pick-and-roll, setting in the pick-and-roll, posting up, coming off cuts, coming off pindowns and curling in the lane.
“There was all that stuff (in Game 6). The variety is what I liked. Part of the problem we had was, for whatever the reason, the ball was going up and down the floor a lot in these games, and (Siakam wasn’t) getting many touches. Then we kind of force-fed him into the post, because we wanted to try to get him some touches, and it was a little the same all the time. Last night, it was really unpredictable in a variety of ways. That’s where he excels.”
When we look back at the Raptors’ past playoff failures — you can go ahead and pick your favourite — the dominant sentiment was one of embarrassment. Regardless of the roster or the coach, the Raptors almost always looked unprepared for the moment, even when they were the “better” team. For fans who spent their days getting hyped up, it was never not crushing to see just how quickly Toronto could fold under that pressure. We can recall how quickly LeBron James took the Raptors apart from 2016 to 2018; or go back further to those Chris Bosh-led fiascos; or even remember the unravelling of 2000, in which it was clear the Raptors were just not ready. The whole “Game 1 loss at home” thing sprung specifically from these moments too. For a league and audience always seemingly a heartbeat away from relegating Toronto to afterthought, it hurt to watch.
That’s what stands out now after Wednesday night’s Game 6. The Raptors were in tough against a team that has, let’s admit it, a few gamers, players who can — and have — seized the moment. It’s even possible to argue the Raptors have no real business to still be in this series at all. Exhausted after regulation, to say nothing of the minutes load from previous games, the Raptors should have folded now. Prior to Game 6, they were facing elimination against a younger team that believes their time has come. And with the eyes of the NBA world upon them, historically the Raptors have tended to fail — and fail hard — more often than they’ve succeeded. Which makes what happened down the stretch and in those overtime periods, with Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and the rest of the Raptors making play after play after play to keep their season alive, so satisfying.
Make no mistake: if the Raps had lost Game 6, it would have been a bummer. But Toronto would have been able to hold their collective heads up high. They fought hard all the way to the final buzzer, gave it all they got, left it all on the floor — choose whatever sports cliche you want here. There would have been nothing else left to takeaway. Except, well, they didn’t lose. And now, after the most fun season in Raptors’ history, after the suspended regular season and the almost-work stoppage, after all of those ups and downs right on into the Bubble, Toronto still has a chance to go all the way.
Whatever happens in Game 7 — me personally, I’m praying for a Toronto-led blowout — Raptors fans just want the team to show up like we know they can. Like the world now knows they can. And most importantly: like they know they can.
Over the past six seasons, no Eastern Conference teams have appeared in more playoff games than the Raptors and the Celtics. They mirror each other in many ways: their tough and hard-nosed styles of play, their innovative coaches, their rising stars, their crafty – and, at times, irritating – vets. Even their fan bases don’t get along.
For years, Raptors-Celtics seemed to be a rivalry in the making. They just needed something to ignite that spark. Well, nothing fuels that fire quite like a seven-game series.
“I think that we’re close in proximity, we’re in the same division, both teams have been in the playoffs a lot of years in a row,” said Nurse. “It just seems like the regular-season matchups against these guys seem to be big moments, and we always talk about how big a game they are. And then you find yourself in a tough series like this. It feels like a rivalry already, even though this is the first time we’ve met. I think a lot of factors have gone into that.”
With a couple of notable exceptions, this series has lived up to the hype. If you look past the lopsided results of Games 1 and 5, the other four contests have been determined by seven points or fewer. One came down to the final half-second. Another required an extra 10 minutes to decide.
Coming in, most expected this to go the distance, and while there were certainly moments where that appeared unlikely, a Game 7 seems fitting.
“It’s [the] two [seed] versus [the] three [seed], two teams in the same division, they’ve got some young studs that are coming up, we’ve got a team that has been through some battles,” said , who is averaging a team-high 21.5 points in the series and has been a catalyst in all three of Toronto’s wins.
“Well, I would have thought that at the start of the series,” Nurse said. “Even before [the series], you would have thought if Boston and Toronto got on a collision course it was going to be a hell of a series. We almost didn’t make it one because of our play a couple of times, and obviously we won a couple of close ones, but we got a good series. We got a Game 7. Let’s see what happens.”
Whatever happens on Friday, the Raptors have been pushed to their limit by this Celtics team, tested like never before.
A year ago, the road to their historic championship was paved with adversity. They had to exorcize some demons after dropping the opener to Orlando. They had to overcome a 2-0 series deficit in order to get past the NBA’s MVP, , and his top-seeded Bucks. Then, with the help of some injury luck, they had to hold off the Steph Curry-led Warriors.
In hindsight, though, their toughest challenge came in the second round, when they needed seven games – and four iconic bounces – to outlast the Philadelphia 76ers
One of the most interesting aspects of this series has been the chess match between Nurse and Celtics coach Brad Stevens as they adjust, counter and re-adjust offensive schemes and defensive coverages with each other in what has appeared to be an endless loop of savvy coaching.
Nurse was asked earlier in the series how durable adjustments he’s made against Stevens have been and responded with, “not that durable,” meaning every time the Raptors have seemed to figure something out against the Celtics, they have managed to find the answer to it and, more than likely, vice versa.
So as good as this small lineup was, Nurse is on high alert already for any contravention Stevens may look to have for it.
“I’m in the process now of processing everything,” Nurse said. “I’m trying to lay out everything that we’ve done, and what they possibly can counter with, what we can possibly change and counter with, and that’s part of a playoff series.”
Yes, adjusting and re-adjusting is part of the ups and downs of a seven-game series, like the one this series has gone to, and in Game 6 Nurse was able to find the proper counter to Boston with his ultra-small lineup.
There’s no guarantee it’ll work again, but it’s something he may as well try again in Game 7 because if it doesn’t work out, Nurse has proven to be a coach who can find other ways to win.
“That chess match is going on 100 miles an hour, and it’s part of the excitement of what we do,” he said.
And it’s sure to be part of the excitement of Friday’s winner-take-all extravaganza, too.
NBA on ESPN analyst Richard Jefferson joins the guys on Overdrive to discuss the number of players that played huge minutes in the Raptors and Celtics Game 6 double overtime game, and if that was the most entertaining game in the bubble so far. Jefferson also discusses how the perception of Kyle Lowry has changed this season and why it might be more impressive than the Raptors championship season.
But perhaps the biggest wish of all heading into a game with so much on the line for both teams it is that Pascal Siakam will once again start to look like Pascal Siakam.
On that front, Nurse says the indicators are there.
“I think he played a really good game (Wednesday) night. I really do,” Nurse said. “He didn’t make maybe as many (shots) as we all wanted him to or he even wanted to or whatever, but I thought he got to spots, his decisions were good, he had some opportunities and I liked the opportunities a lot.
“You know, maybe — it looked to me he’s getting closer to finding some better spaces and better areas to operate from, and a better rhythm and tempo to his own game now. They just need to go in now. They need to quit popping out and pop back in once in a while and he’ll be much happier.”
On the whole it sounds very much like Nurse has not been all together happy with his team’s play through this series. He sees another level his team can get to.
“I expected this to be a long series, thank goodness we’ve played just well enough to make it a long series. Hopefully we can play better (Friday),” he said.
A year ago Nurse had Kawhi Leonard and the often overlooked (but never forgotten) Danny Green to turn to on a nightly basis. He could get through games without the full complement of his rotation chipping in because those two, Leonard in particular obviously, could offset any dropoffs elsewhere.
The Raptors don’t have that safety valve this year. They need all their various parts functioning and contributing to be successful in a game where both teams have their playoff lives on the line.
One thing is indisputable: Powell will accept his assignment with professionalism because that’s what he’s always done. Need him to take a last-possession shot at the end of overtime as the Raptors did on Wednesday? Bring it on.
“I think I just have a lot of confidence in myself,” Powell said. “It’s not the first time Coach has drawn up a play for me to take the last shot this year. We talk about it and we work on it. So I’m really confident in my ability in whatever shot I get, and whatever shot I take I feel like it’s going in.”
If the Raptors need him to be in a quick, small defensive alignment, like the one that worked so well in the fourth quarter and two overtimes of Game 6, he knows why he’s there.
“I think the switching eats a lot of their clock in them trying to get the matchups and seeing who they want to go at and our switching is being disruptive and not giving them easy looks,” he said.
That small lineup with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Powell, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam may end up being the key for Toronto in Friday’s Game 7.
It’s a relatively new twist the Celtics will have to adapt to and might unlock a Raptors offence that slows down at times.
“We were doing it more for some better chances defensively, I think, and it was good there, too,” Nurse said. ”But I liked it at the offensive end. And there were still some things on defence, we made some mistakes but you kind of expect that — guys are doing things they’re not used to doing. Like, OG (became) a rim protector every possession for about five possession in a row, and he messed a couple up, and he’d do a couple good ones.
“But they competed, and they played, and I thought at the offensive end it really spread the ball around. Norm was making shots, OG popped, made a shot, OG drived-and-kicked one out … There was a lot more, I think, happening at the offensive end that made us more difficult to guard.”
While this is the first time the Boston and Toronto have met in the playoffs, Raptors head coach says that due to many factors, including the hard fought battles, that the Celtics and Raps are rivals.
Game 7 are two of the most exciting words in sports. Friday on TSN, the Raptors and Celtics put their seasons on the line in a winner takes all contest. Kate Beirness has more on how Toronto’s leader can once again be the difference for his battle tested team.
And so it is a one-game series now between the Raptors and the Celtics. A winner-take-all, loser-leaves-bubble match.
That the Celtics have been the better team for more of the six games than the Raptors have is rather irrelevant right now.
“We’ve played just well enough to make it a long series,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, knowing full well what his team has been through.
Toronto found a way to win Game 3 with a miracle ending and, while still breathing, found a way to win Game 6 with its flow of emotions, 10 lead changes — six of them coming in extra time— and the score being tied on seven different occasions.
It is difficult to separate all that was the emotional giant of Game 6 from what is now the only game that matters to either team. Wednesday night will be recognized forever. If he has grandchildren, Stevens will probably tell them about it one day. But somehow the players, the coaches, all those involved with both teams, living together under the same unusual circumstances, will play the series-clinching game on Friday night. It doesn’t have to be a classic. It may not be.
Of the many truths of this compelling series are these: The Raptors required a half-second special to pull out Game 3. And on Wednesday they needed Lowry being the best player on the floor again — the three times he has been that, the Raptors have won each game — and Norm Powell to burst his way into the series with late game-changing plays to keep the hopes alive.
“When Belichick talked to us a few weeks ago (he said) ‘History and experience are meaningless. It’s how you play in this minute.’ And I think that’s right,” Stevens said.
That’s true, sure. All any of us truly have is the reality immediately in front of us. And there’s no doubt basketball games are played in the present — a collection of moments run together until they eventually sound a buzzer and count up the score.
Still, to deny the potential heft of history is to ignore the obvious. As much as the Raptors play fiercely in the present, they’re undeniably emboldened by their recent past. Kyle Lowry is the best example. Dogged by a reputation for underwhelming playoff performance once upon a time, he is, at age 34, playing with a calm and confidence that’s only come by weathering so many failures en route to winning a ring. His 33-point Game 6, in which he unfurled a tireless display of clutch shotmaking, including the fadeaway jumper that iced it, was a great example of the difference between being the best player on paper (which Lowry isn’t) and the best one when it matters (which Lowry was). Toronto’s resident bulldog, in other words, seems revelling in Toronto’s status as a second-round underdog.
As Nurse was saying on Thursday: “We’ve had to fight really hard to stay in these games and scratch and claw our way to some wins. It’s right up (Lowry’s) alley.”
The Celtics, as much as they have to like their chances, can’t be sure they can say the same thing about any of their best players. Tatum is just 22. Brown, who is 2-1 in Game 7s, is only 23. And as for Kemba Walker, the max-contract point guard the Celtics signed a summer ago for moments like this, as much as he’s a 30-year-old veteran and a four-time all-star, this is his first trip out of the first round. Friday will be Walker’s second career Game 7. His previous turn, in 2016, didn’t turn out well. After averaging 25 points a game in the opening six games of a first-round series with the Miami Heat, Walker was held to nine points on 3-for-16 shooting in a 36-point dismantling.
Stevens has been trying to demystify the potentially daunting thought of facing the win-or-go-home moments than any elite team must weather.