Typically, I write at least an outline of this column, and sometimes a few of the thoughts, and occasionally the whole dang thing, immediately following each game. Then I wrap it up in the morning.
Last night I couldn’t write a damn thing following that game. How do you summarize one of the best playoff games you’ve ever seen? How do you clamp the emotions down long enough to form words? Heck, how do you write when your heart’s pounding so loud it’s all you can hear?
What an all-time classic.
Before I get to the thoughts though, I want to bring everyone’s attention back to reimagining policing in our society. It’s kind of the message we all started with back when the Bubble started, and I worry that it’s gotten lost a bit in the ensuing weeks. It’s still important, critically so, that we re-think the role of police in our communities, demilitarize our police forces, and redirect taxpayer funds that go to police to more worthy community health and safety initiatives. There are many resources out there that help define exactly what this means, and why it needs to happen and how it can work. This Twitter thread is a great place to start.
Now, let’s get to some thoughts, starting with the King.
1. Kyle Lowry, Elimination Game King
Magic Johnson called Kyle Lowry “the Little General” last night, but I have a better nickname: Elimination Game King. (OK, maybe it’s not “better,” but it’s fitting!)
Lowry has played eight games facing elimination as a Raptor:
- 2014, Game 7 vs. Brooklyn: 28 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists
- 2015, Game 4 vs. Washington: 21/8/4
- 2016, Game 7 vs. Indiana: 11/4/9
- 2016, Game 7 vs. Miami: 35/7/9
- 2016, Game 6 vs. Cleveland: 35/3/3
- 2018, Game 4 vs. Cleveland: 5/4/10
- 2019, Game 7 vs. Philadelphia: 10/6/6
- 2020, Game 6 vs. Boston: 33/8/6
All told, he’s averaging 22/6/6 on 46/42/83 shooting splits, in 40 minutes a game in elimination games. Not bad for a 6-foot point guard who “can’t get it done in the playoffs,” I’d say!
Sure, they weren't all masterpieces (looking at you, Game 4 vs. Cleveland) but last night sure was another one. That dagger over Kemba Walker’s outstretched fingertips was incredible.
And now we get to watch him do it again on Friday.
2. Going Small (And it Worked!)
I’ve written about the Raptors small lineup multiple times in this series, either because they weren’t using it, or because they used it and it didn’t work.
Finally, yesterday, they used it extensively... and it worked! In 18 minutes (including almost the entirety of both OTs, minus a few Marc Gasol seconds where he came in to rebound), the Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby lineup was a +4 with 44/42/80 shooting splits, a drastic improvement on their overall offensive efficiency. It should also be noted that while I typically think of this as the “Siakam-at-centre” lineup, it was Anunoby who played the five last night — and played it well (we’ll get to him).
Now, the group did give up the things you’d expect. In the final six minutes of the fourth and the 10 minutes of OT, they were outrebounded 16-10 and the Celtics successfully fed Daniel Theis, who had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting in that stretch. But, I think I chalk some of Theis’ numbers there to fatigue; his buckets mostly came when Kemba Walker attacked the D up top, and help had to rotate. Normally I trust the Raptors’ defenders to contain Walker 1-on-1 but I think their tired legs gave Walker the extra space he needed, and he simply found Theis over and over when the help came.
I certainly won’t be surprised to see this group get more run in Game 7.
3. Stone Cold OG
Let’s talk about OG Anunoby emerging is the best Raptors forward in this series.
(Yes, that’s a dig on Pascal Siakam, but it’s 100% in jest. Siakam is in a major slump on offense. But other than a handful of Game 5 lapses, he’s been awesome on defense, and they needed him on that end for all 53.5 (!!!) minutes he played last night. I’m not piling on.)
Anunoby pulled down a monster 13 rebounds, five on of them offensive, and won three jump balls in OT. That’s three possessions he secured in the highest possible leverage situations — that really can’t be overstated! He also nailed this absolute monster of a three-pointer to give the Raptors the lead with just under a minute to go in OT — a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
(Please imagine the Mike Breen “BANG” over top of that GIF.)
OG finished with 13 points and 13 boards in 49.5 minutes.
4. Welcome Back Norm
Boy, it was so, so good to finally see Norman Powell break out of his slump.
That small lineup certainly wouldn’t have worked without Norm, who scored 15 points across the two OT periods, missing only one shot and scoring the and-1 on Marcus Smart that prompted this:
"Fuck that was great. Thank you, Norm. That was fucking unbelievable." - Lowry on Norm's and-1— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) September 10, 2020
Powell has proven himself over and over in the playoffs, going all the way back to his rookie year; while he might be inconsistent, you certainly can’t say that he’s scared.
Along with Serge Ibaka’s much-needed hot-shooting second quarter, the Raptors bench finally outplayed Boston’s, outscoring them 38-16 (even though Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams each hit two infuriatingly-well-timed three pointers).
5. Clean up on Aisle 7
The Raptors have plenty of momentum going into Game 7 after that emotional win, but they’ll need more than that to win it. They’ll need their shooting to stay on track, for one thing, but a few things did stand out to me from last night that need to be cleaned up:
Offensive rebounding: The Raptors gave up 14 offensive rebounds last night — and it felt like all of them came in the first quarter, which dug the Raptors an unnecessary hole. The Raptors were actually lucky — the Celtics only scored nine second chance points, thanks to some bad second-chance shooting (just 4-for-13 on second chance opportunities).
Corner threes: Avert your eyes from the following shot chart, if you’re easily frightened:
11-for-22 on corner threes! Yes, we all know the Raptors pack the paint and give up threes. But you’re not gonna win too many games letting your opponents shoot 50% on 22 attempts from the corners. This one is gonna be tough to contain — tired legs make rotating hard, and with four guys having played 49+ minutes last night, well...
Avoiding Marcus Smart: I don’t just mean staying out of his way because his flailing is likely to injure someone. (But also that.) The Celtics have done a great job switching Smart off to guard the primary ball handler, whether it be Lowry, Siakam or VanVleet. And all too often the Raptors didn’t do a good enough job moving the ball away from him. Attacking Smart is just a recipe for disaster.
Hitting free throws: The Raptors ended up shooting 18-for-25 from the line, thanks to Powell being automatic late. But they were 10-for-17 at one point (Anunoby was 1-for-4), and missed free throws are the thing you look back on in close games as real missed opportunities. The Raptors also shot seven more FTs than the Celtics, and that’s not something I’d expect to see happen again in Game 7.
I know this much about Friday: I’m going to be an emotional wreck. I mean, it was tough to write following last night’s game, it’s going to be even tougher — win or lose — following Game 7.
Unless it’s a blowout. Miami 2016 vibes anyone? I wouldn’t mind that one bit!
But I expect it to be another thriller, and as terrifying as the thought it is, it’s also terribly exciting. There’s just nothing better than a Game 7.