Down 2-0 in a playoff series is not where you want to be. In the history of the NBA only 21 teams have overcome a 2-0 hole in a best-of-seven series, but this Toronto Raptors team knows what it’s like to face adversity.
They showed it last year, clawing out of a 2-0 hole against the Milwaukee Bucks to win four straight and advance to the 2019 NBA Finals. And on Thursday night, facing the prospect of going down 3-0 to the Boston Celtics and trailing by two points with half a second on the clock, the Raptors did it again.
You can tell a lot about a team by the way it responds in moments of desperation. In that final half-second, the Raptors walked over to the bench as if it was any other game.
“It seemed like we sat down in our chairs, and they were ready to get the play,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “They sat down and when I turned around, they were all sitting there waiting for me to give them a play and I decided, I had two in mind, and decided on that one.”
Fred VanVleet was the first option on the play. He had broken out of his shooting slump, shooting 9-for-22 from the field with five 3-pointers in the game. But the Celtics were too savvy to let VanVleet beat them, so they walled off the corner with Daniel Theis and Jayson Tatum.
If not VanVleet, than Pascal Siakam was option No. 2 for Kyle Lowry who was tasked with throwing the inbound pass. It would have been the perfect way to make up for his Game 2 gaffe, but this time the Celtics wouldn’t let him touch the ball.
“We know Boston does a great job running their inbounds and Coach Stevens is one hell of a [after timeout] offensive and defensive guy,” Lowry said. “I was just waiting, just waiting for the right moment.”
Making any pass over the 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall is not easy, let alone a cross-court pass when you’re just 6-feet tall.
“There’s not a lot of times that you probably want, let’s call him a 6-foot-1 guard taking the ball out in a late-game situation because you saw what they do, they try to put size on it and limit your vision,” Nurse said. “But you say to me ‘why is Kyle taking it out?’ I say because ‘he’s got some guts, man,’ you’ve got to make a gutsy play every now and then.”
And yet, with the Raptors' season hanging in the balance, Lowry threw a perfect pass the width of the court, finding an open OG Anunoby.
Bucket. 104-103 Raptors win.
“It was cool,” Anunoby said. “Just getting ready for Game 4 now.”
The ever-stoic Anunoby hardly even cracked a smile.
“That’s just what he does, that’s him,” Lowry said. “I know deep down inside he’s excited and he’ll get a lot of text messages and he needs the credit, he deserves all the love and celebration he’s getting tonight, that kid works extremely hard and, like I said, it’s his moment.”
The shot never would have happened without a herculean performance from the Greatest Raptor of All Time. Lowry started the game just like he did Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. He led things off with an and-1 and scored eight of the Raptors’ first 10 points.
His aggressiveness came thanks to a text he received pre-game from an unidentified friend who told him to “stop waiting.”
“That was pretty much the game plan for me tonight,” Lowry said. “Stop waiting and be aggressive from the jump.”
Lowry broke a couple of Nurse’s set plays early in the game, the Raptors’ coach said, opting instead to call his own number attacking the rim for points.
But while Lowry did it on one end for the Raptors, Boston’s Kemba Walker was nearly every bit as good on the other end. He nailed pull-up after pull-up for the Celtics, taking advantage whenever the Raptors’ bigs dropped back in pick-and-roll coverage. Walker scored a team-high 29 points with three assists, none bigger than his last-second no-look pass to Theis to put the Celtics ahead late.
Yet even when Theis put the Celtics up late, the Raptors never wavered.
Now, they’re right back in the series.
“We just needed something to feel good [about],” VanVleet said. “It’s been a rough couple of days. … We’ve been pretty hard on ourselves the past couple of days. It hasn’t been pretty. The mood hasn’t been great, but you just need a little magic and I thought we played great tonight.”
The Celtics had a 94.6% chance of winning the game when Theis put Boston ahead by two points, according to inpredictable.
Game 4 will tip off on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET.