In the end, the better team won the series. But the Toronto Raptors didn’t go down without a fight.
Sometimes, a book doesn’t produce the happiest of endings. Even with a narrative arc that consists of a lot of highs, the inevitable conclusion leaves an empty feeling in your stomach, wanting more.
For the Raptors, Game 7 against the Boston Celtics resulted in loss, rather than victory. Disappointment, rather than joy. While it pales in comparison to the feeling of winning a championship, this season was the perfect “cherry on top” moment for a franchise that lost its superstar. Game 7 went down to the end and despite the numerous flaws, the Raptors were close to advancing to their third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
“We didn’t play great in this series. There’s no denying that. But pretty much everything else we did this season, we were awesome,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said to reporters after the 92-87 Game 7 defeat. “It’s almost hard to believe we were within a possession of continuing on tonight.”
Simply put, the Raptors lost the turnover battle in Game 7. For a team that gave up the fewest turnovers among NBA teams remaining in the playoffs, it was uncharacteristic how careless the Raptors were with the ball in Game 7.
The Raptors had 18 turnovers to the Celtics’ 10, which Boston turned into 31 points. Toronto produced just 18 points off of the Celtics’ turnovers. Sure, the Celtics played tight defense against the Raptors, not allowing them a lot of space to drive into the paint and reading the passing lanes with ease. However, the Raptors carelessness with the ball in the half-court led to 12 steals for the Celtics, which they used for easy baskets in transition. The Raptors defense, while holding the Celtics to 35-of-86 (40.6 percent) shooting from the floor, needed to contest more of those shots off of turnovers. Fast-break points in Game 7 saw the Celtics have a 23-10 advantage over the Raptors. During the regular season, this was a defining pillar of the Raptors; using their dominant defense to create turnovers and then getting out in transition to secure easy baskets.
Nothing was easy in transition for the Raptors against a physical defense like the Celtics.
“Turnovers killed us,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. “We were a little bit too fast. We were really tentative in some of the things we should have been doing.”
No better example of the turnovers hindering the Raptors chances in Game 7 than in the second quarter. The Raptors had a seven-point lead, where their offense looked confident enough to extend it to double-digits by halftime.
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet started the turnover barrage. The Celtics defense collapsed on VanVleet, leading him to commit a bad pass to Marcus Smart, who assisted on a Jayson Tatum alley-oop. Smart made a floating jump-shot, bringing the game to within three points, thanks to Ibaka’s offensive foul. With three and a half minutes remaining in the quarter, Jaylen Brown stole Lowry’s pass, leading to a Smart finger-roll layup in transition. This put the Celtics up one, which then extended to four after Marc Gasol’s traveling violation turnover, leading to a Brown three-pointer.
The Raptors couldn’t recover from six turnovers in eight possessions in the second quarter. They never could clean up their control of the ball, with turnovers occurring throughout the rest of the game.
There were several moments in the game where the Raptors could’ve folded. In the first quarter, the Raptors were down 12 before Nurse went to his bench. Matt Thomas got a key three-pointer and Norman Powell showed off his speed in the fast-break, propelling the Raptors to a lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Celtics extended their lead to 10 points. However, thanks to Lowry driving the rim, VanVleet making a triple, Powell securing a jump shot, and Pascal Siakam drawing a foul, the Raptors were down two points with a little over a minute remaining.
After Tatum missed the layup on the ensuing possession, Powell ran down the court on the fast-break, before Smart blocked the Raptor guard, preventing him from tying the game. Unfortunately for Powell, after Grant Williams missed two free throws, he fouled Tatum on his way to try and rebound the ball.
When the Celtics needed it most, Marcus Smart came through with the block 🖐 pic.twitter.com/rpeKkgjRoS
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 12, 2020
Lowry, the Raptors best high leverage player on offense, fouling out did not help matters late in the game. But the Raptors did have chances to take the lead down the stretch, they just didn’t execute.
Siakam will take a lot of criticism for his poor performance in this series. It is warranted, given how well he performed during the regular season that earned him an All-Star appearance (22.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 45.3 FG%, 35.9 3FG%). Since the NBA Restart, Siakam hasn’t looked his normal, aggressive self. There’s a learning curve that comes with embracing the number one scoring role. While the same tendencies of not finishing at the rim and turning the ball over inside remained apparent in Game 7, Siakam admitted after the game that he will learn from this moment and get better as a player.
“I have to be better,” Siakam said. “It was definitely a learning moment for me, just learning from this experience and just learning that you’ve got to be ready and that I wasn’t able to really help my teammates, so, yeah, I take a lot of the blame, man. I take a lot of the blame.”
While Nurse deservedly won Coach of the Year honours, there’s no doubt Brad Stevens outcoached him in this series. Nurse relied heavily on the “box-and-one” defense in Game 7, which the Celtics exploited by penetrating it, forcing the Raptor players to sag into the paint leading to open threes. Leaving in Gasol for as long as Nurse did in the third quarter was costly, given the Raptor center recorded a -20 in Game 7. Mixing things up on offense as the Raptors did in the first half with Thomas, could’ve provided the spark necessary to extend the lead in the second half.
Fatigue may have played a role, but I thought Lowry was deferring a lot of the play tonight, rather than leading the charge on offense as he did in Games 3 and 6. While VanVleet did record some critical threes, having the offense run through him or Siakam late in the game led to either turnovers or missed shots. Down three points with 27 seconds remaining on the clock, the Raptors elected to have VanVleet tie the game with a three, rather than score a quick two. Brown guarded VanVleet perfectly in the corner, thanks to his length, before Williams switched onto him, leading to the missed, one-on-one, three-point attempt.
"Offensive genius" pic.twitter.com/6a1MEjcnbp
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) September 12, 2020
Again, you cannot deny the fighting spirit of the Raptors team, given all the adversity they faced this season. From losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to dealing with a multitude of injuries, the pandemic, living in the bubble, and issues related to anti-black racism, the Raptors exemplified leadership and grit. This series should’ve been 3-0 if it weren’t for Lowry’s inbound pass to OG Anunoby with 0.5 seconds remaining, who hit the game-winning three. Or in Game 6, backs against the wall in double overtime, Lowry and Powell emerged with their stellar performances.
Sure, Game 7 wasn’t their finest moment. But with time, this title defense season immortalizes the Raptors for their ability to lead and inspire a country amidst unfortunate circumstances.