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Game 6 Breakdown: The Raptors make it work in the clutch

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After looking like they were going to win, then lose, then win again, right on into double overtime, Toronto did finally grab Game 6 and force a winner-take-all showdown with the Celtics. How’d it happen?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So, a lot of stuff happened in Game 6.

We could start with the obvious Kyle Lowry Over Everything storyline, but frankly everyone on the Raptors did at least something well, so it’s possible some things will get glossed over here. It was just that kind of game against the Celtics, a high drama showdown that featured some huge shot-making down the stretch and two overtimes.

With the game — and the series — coming down to the wire, let’s check in on the storylines we’ve been tracking so far. Here’s how things stand for the Raptors as we head for Friday’s Game 7 against Boston.

Toronto’s Shooting

I’ve been saying the Raptors’ shooting will come. After what felt like a positive trend from Games 2 through 4, however, it hasn’t come with any consistency. Fortunately, the up and down fortunes of Toronto from three were just enough to get us to Game 7 — so, I guess no complaints! Check the numbers now:

Game 1: 10/40 (25%)
Game 2: 11/40 (27.5%)
Game 3: 13/40 (32.5%)
Game 4: 17/44 (38.6%)
Game 5: 12/40 (30%)
Game 6: 19/47 (40.4%)

For the most part, the three-point shooting is still trending in the right direction, with the exception of that egg laid in Game 5. Better shooting wouldn’t have saved the team in that one. Just for kicks, a handy chart:

Looking at that progression, the predicted Game 7 three-point shooting performance is 41.4 percent based on a linear fit. That’s not even a little bit how this actually works, of course — but still! If the Raps hit that number that would be appreciated (and not completely out of their usual expectation). In all, just seeing the shooting numbers back in the range we have come to expect from the team is nice.

Starters Review

The big story from this game is the small look the Raptors went to at the end (we’ll get to that in a minute). But you shouldn’t let that distract you completely from the effectiveness of the starters while they were used. With Marc Gasol in foul trouble, they didn’t get as much end-game use (though they could certainly have been run out there more), but even with a somewhat rocky start to the game, they held on well enough and then took control to start the second half.

The starters winning their minutes is crucial in giving the Raptors a chance to win in this series, as the bench has not been the advantage we had hoped coming in. Here’s how the plus/minus looks once again:

Game | Starting Lineup Minutes | Starting Lineup Net Rating
Game 1 (L by 18): 14 MP, -41.9
Game 2 (L by 3): 21 MP, +17.5
Game 3 (W by 1): 17 MP, +20.6
Game 4 (W by 7): 24 MP, +22.7
Game 5 (L by 22): 12 MP, -40.7
Game 6 (W by 3): 16 MP, +11.7

(Net Rating: Point Differential per 100 Possessions)

Seems simple. The starters have been the Raptors’ strength. If they come out flat and the Raptors get in a real hole, they are toast. Note the two losing nights for the starters equating to huge losses. But if the starters come out and hold their own or win their minutes? We’ve got a game. And one the Raptors win more often than they lose.

Now, for a guy who gets a lot of flack for lack of production on the offensive end, give it up for Marc Gasol who posted eight points and hit two 3s in that crucial third quarter run. It’s clearly a low bar for him at this point if we applaud a mere eight points, but so long as that lineup is winning those minutes, the Raptors have a shot. Whatever it takes from Gasol to make that happen should be all Raptors fans need to see from him.

Narrow Margins

You might notice that the Raptors have been in some tight contests this series. Well, some of them have been even tighter than they first appear. Rather than showing the final score, here is a breakdown of the four close games and the two team’s offensive ratings (points scored per 100 possessions).

Game 2: 105.2 BOS - 101.0 TOR
Game 3: 109.6 BOS - 108.3 TOR
Game 4: 105.3 TOR - 97.9 BOS
Game 6: 109.9 BOS - 109.6 TOR

Consider it this way: if the two teams had the same number of possessions, Boston wins three of the four. In reality, Toronto won three of the four. This really highlights the benefit of the Raptors playing their little games at the end of quarters and trying to get 2-for-1 opportunities and the like.

Overall, this can slightly shift the number of possessions each team gets compared to the other. And this is not on the scale of what we usually talk about when we say one team has more shooting possessions than the other because of a turnover or rebounding advantage — those are all captured in the offensive ratings above. This is gamesmanship, through and through, and the Raptors gamed their way to stealing two wins they didn’t earn by converting their possessions just a tad better. Welcome to the playoffs.

For most of the series, the Raptors’ shooting abandoned them, and, true to the spirit of their leader, Kyle Lowry, they have grifted and ground their way to wins nonetheless.

That Small Group

Coach Nick Nurse decided to run with a small lineup of Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby (at centre!) to close this one out — and it worked.

We have to give a special shout out here to Powell for suddenly appearing in this series after a largely invisible (at best) performance through 5.9 games. His shooting was crucial to scraping out a win from this game. He scored 15 of his 23 points during the clutch minutes in this game (the final 5 minutes of regulation and the two overtimes). In that time, Norm shot 3-for-4 from the field, 2-for-3 from distance, and got to the line for seven free throws, hitting them all. He also registered only a single turnover in those clutch minutes, more than making up for that with two huge steals and a blocked shot.

But Toronto’s small-ball lineup is not actually that effective in terms of winning their minutes. Now, to be fair, they played their minutes against the Celtics’ starters, which are the same tough minutes the Raptors typically assign for their starters to handle. And for good reason, as we saw at the start of the fourth quarter in this game. Boston rolled out their starters to try to shrink the Raptors’ lead while they sat some of their own starters. And lo and behold, it worked. Very quickly it became apparent that the Raptors’ bench-built lineups — already struggling to hold their own against other bench-player-heavy lineups from Boston — would not be able to stay afloat against Boston’s starting lineup. In those five minutes to start the quarter, a 4-point Toronto lead became a 1-point Boston lead and in came the small lineup.

With so much time left in the quarter, and Gasol sitting on five fouls, you would prefer to save his minutes for closer to the end of the game. So the Raptors went small, with Powell joining the starters in Gasol’s place. And it worked out in the end, but... this lineup has not been impressive.

On the series prior to Game 6, they had played five minutes in total together, and lost those minutes by six points. Given how close the series has been, this is non-ideal. Especially for a lineup that entered needing to retake the lead.

Yet retake the lead they did! A couple of threes from Lowry and Toronto somehow quickly established a 5-point lead with six minutes left. Of course, you all know this one went to overtime (twice), so you know they blew that lead, going for a stretch in the final 4.5 minutes without score a single point. Still, that lineup essentially played the final 18 minutes of a double overtime game and won those minutes by four. Good enough!

It does make me wonder why Gasol was left on the bench in the fourth, considering the success the starters had earlier in the game, especially once the small lineup built that 5 point lead. But live and learn.

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And on to Game 7 we go. The Raptors unwrapped a pretty new look, made it work over a pretty long stretch against Boston’s best players, and unlocked Norm’s offense in the meantime.

And with Gasol and the starters back on track, both Norm and Serge producing off the bench (and Matt Thomas providing quality minutes — a period he’s now won by eight points!), and a giant pile of upside in Siakam’s offensive game still to unlock (though his defense has been wonderful in Toronto’s wins), Game 7 should be a barn burner.

All stats per NBA.com.