The Raptors knew Thursday night’s Game 3 against the Celtics fell under the must-win category after they lost Games 1 and 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. No NBA team has ever won a playoff series after falling into a 3-0 hole.
So when Boston guard Kemba Walker worked his way around a double-team and found Daniel Theis for an easy dunk with 0.5 seconds left in regulation, giving his team a 103-101 lead, it felt like the Celtics may have already punched their ticket to the next round.
But these Raptors never quit, and as long as Coach of the Year Nick Nurse can draw up one more play, they are never truly done.
Following a Toronto timeout, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry took the ball on the sideline and found OG Anunoby in the opposite corner. The pass, the shot and . . . boom. From 3-0 to 2-1 in just 0.5 seconds.
How did the Raptors pull this off with such a small margin for error? It started with Nurse’s play, which he later admitted he took from an old Hubie Brown coaching DVD. Let’s take a wider view of the last possession:
Marc Gasol first screens for Fred VanVleet, who is coming toward the ball. At the same time, Anunoby clears out, floating along the baseline to the far corner. Gasol then screens for Pascal Siakam, who runs into Marcus Smart at the top of the key.
Lowry told TNT’s Rebecca Haarlow after the game the play was designed to give Siakam or VanVleet the last shot, but the Celtics did a great job of zoning up and switching everything to prevent an easy look. To make things more difficult, Boston coach Brad Stevens put Tacko Fall right in front of Lowry.
A younger player may have panicked in that situation, but Lowry patiently surveyed the floor. Jayson Tatum and Theis cut off the passing lane to VanVleet, Smart denied Siakam and Jaylen Brown prevented Gasol from rolling directly to the rim.
And then there was Anunoby, standing all alone far from the action that had sucked in every defender. Tatum said he didn’t follow Anunoby because Smart had passed VanVleet off to him, but Tatum felt he failed to properly communicate with the next man who was supposed to take Anunoby. That minor miscommunication gave Lowry his opening.
Lowry somehow launched an overhead pass with a perfect trajectory. It was high enough to fly past Fall’s arms, but fast enough to hit Anunoby’s hands before Brown could save the day with a James Harden-style block.
“I got a 7-12 guy on me, but I just waited and OG, he’s been shooting lights out the last couple weeks,” Lowry said. “I had confidence in him and we take that win.” (Note: Fall is listed at 7-5, a few inches shy of 7-12.)
Anunoby took care of the rest, clearly releasing the ball before time expired and draining the contested 3-pointer. That shot made him 8 of 14 from 3-point range (57.1 percent) through the first three games of the series.
“When I shot it, I expected to make it. I don’t shoot trying to miss,” Anunoby said. “Every shot I shoot, I try to make it. I wasn’t going to act surprised, because I wasn’t surprised.”
Sounds easy when you put it that way.
While the Raptors celebrated the game-winner on the court, Lowry and his teammates quickly turned their attention to Game 4. They’re still down 2-1 to a talented Celtics squad, after all.
“One game at a time. Great emotional moment right there, but that’s over,” Lowry said. “Now we have to focus on the next game. That’s how we think about it.”
Well, you could enjoy it a little bit longer. That play was pretty cool.
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