Toronto Raptors Are Writing Their Own Story to Keep Title Defense Alive

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2020

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) celebrates with teammate Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Boston Celtics Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Toronto Raptors shouldn't be here, tied up at three games apiece with the Boston Celtics and headed to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals after an epic 125-122 double-overtime win on Wednesday.

But it's now clearer than ever that the Raptors aren't at all concerned with what's supposed to happen.

Let's go back a bit before we hit the various instances of expectation defiance Toronto produced in a brutally contested Game 6. Back to the moment Kawhi Leonard, Finals MVP and driving force behind the Raptors' 2019 title, exited for the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency.

Sure, it was always possible that internal development (which the Raptors got from Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, among others) and championship experience could keep them competitive without their transcendent superstar. But it was never likely. And it felt like the longest of long shots that they'd produce a better winning percentage in the regular season without Leonard than they did with him last year.

They did it anyway.

And if we're on the subject of probability, what were the odds Anunoby was going to drain that fateful triple from the left corner at the end of Game 3? That shot came off a cross-court Kyle Lowry inbound pass over human air traffic control tower Tacko Fall with a half-second remaining.

That the ball got to Anunoby in the first place was stunning. That he hit the shot was nothing short of a miracle.

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The rainbow trey shouldn't have fallen. Toronto should have been down 3-0. The series should have been over.

Yet it continued.

Even entering Wednesday's game, the Raptors' prospects were bleak. Boston was plus-35 in the first five games of the series and blew Toronto out in Game 5. The Celtics, unfazed by the Raptors' varied defensive looks, had gotten quality shots all series. Early in Game 6, it was the same story: Boston started the contest by generating one open corner three after another.

Marcus Smart canned three long balls from the corners in the opening frame and missed two more clean looks above the break. Boston found terrific scoring opportunities early and often.

Gradually, though, and with great effort, Toronto kept pushing back—fighting against the Celtics and the elimination that seemed inevitable.

Every step of that arduous process felt improbable.

Serge Ibaka, who wasn't even assured of playing after spraining an ankle in Game 5, hit a trio of three-pointers in a two-minute span after Toronto fell down by 12 points midway through the second quarter. Those buckets keyed a run that cut the deficit to only four points at halftime.

In the third, Fred VanVleet pumped in nine points in 38 seconds, then set up Marc Gasol (who entered the contest 0-of-10 from deep in the series) for a three to complete a 12-2 run in just over a minute, flipping a four-point deficit into a six-point advantage.

VanVleet, you'll recall, was undrafted. If there's anyone most emblematic of Toronto's persistent flouting of odds, he's the guy. Twenty-nine other teams told him he isn't supposed to be here, in the NBA, at all.

Let's not forget Kyle Lowry, either. Though he shook off a mostly undeserved reputation for poor playoff performances during the Raptors' championship run, he came up bigger than anyone, producing 33 points, eight rebounds, six assists and an incalculable number of tide-turning flops, dives and hard-nosed hustle plays.

Flash forward to end of regulation, and the Raps somehow managed to force OT despite failing to score over the final 4:24 of the fourth quarter, and despite catching a run of exceptionally tough whistles.

We're running the theme into the ground now, but Toronto shouldn't have won a game in which it selected "Norman Powell Isolation" from its menu of choices to end the first overtime. But it won anyway, in large part because Powell, who predictably couldn't convert the game-winner, fired off 10 points in double OT.

FVV isn't wrong, but he neglected to mention Toronto has had a half-dozen saviors (himself included) in this series. Powell was just the latest.

The final breathless sequence of the second overtime featured too many unlikely buckets and emotional swings to count. Toronto finally got the game on its uptempo terms during that chaotic stretch, and all it had to do was endure the previous five games and another 53 minutes of rock-fight basketball to get there.

Lowry appropriately wound up on the floor at the end of it all. His dagger jumper put the Raptors up four with 11.7 seconds left. He attempted the shot over Kemba Walker from just inside the foul line, but fell backward, sliding all the way to the logo at center court.

Leave it to Lowry to symbolize the Raptors' series: down (literally) but far from out. 

So now, we head to Game 7 on Friday with almost none of Wednesday's pregame evaluations changing.

Boston has had the edge in play all series. It continues to get better shots, even in defeat, and it might be a touch deeper than the Raptors—no small thing after a contest in which both teams had four starters log more than 50 minutes.

The Celtics will be expected to win. The Celtics should win. They're supposed to.

But we know how the Raptors feel about "supposed to."