Raptors force Game 7 behind miraculous performance from Norman Powell


Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 125-122 double-overtime win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

One — Exhilarating: Who would have thought that Game 3, the one where OG Anunoby called game off a one-in-a-thousand pass from Kyle Lowry, would only be the second-most dramatic game of the series? The Raptors and Celtics fought tooth and nail over the course of the full 48 minutes, plus two nail-biting overtime periods, only to arrive at a stalemate through six games. Boston went for the kill, as Brad Stevens played his starters for almost the entire second half and the added periods, and they threw every punch they had. Jayson Tatum bombed threes, Kemba Walker picked them apart with his passing, Jaylen Brown had 31 points and 16 rebounds, and even Marcus Smart tried every flop like a hooked fish on a wire, but still the champions draw breath. It’s been the same motto for the Raptors all year: Never underestimate the heart of a champion.

Two — Heroics: Norman Powell only arrives when the Raptors need him most. It was the case in 2016 when he benched DeMar DeRozan to spark a pivotal comeback against the Pacers, it was the case in 2017 when he replaced Jonas Valanciunas in a smallball lineup that flummoxed the Bucks, it was the same deal in 2019 when Powell delivered against the Bucks again in Game 3, and here he saves the Raptors once more. Powell scored 15 points in the two overtime periods, including two threes from the corner and from the top, and a perfect 7-for-7 from the line. It was a totally unexpected but necessary contribution, as Powell had been a massive disappointment in the first five games of the series, but he arrived just in time to keep the Raptors alive. All of his looks came from playing within the flow of the game — it was some catch-and-shoot chances, driving the paint and beating the rotation to force the foul, and a transition basket — but Boston’s defense was spread too thin to contain him on top of everyone else. If Powell can maintain this level of production in Game 7 — which isn’t beyond him by any means given that Powell played like this all year — then the Raptors should be favoured.

Three — Clutch: The narrative of Kyle Lowry coming up short in the playoffs is the most telltale sign of a casual fan. Lowry is not only a champion, but he is the greatest player in Raptors franchise history, and he keeps proving it time and time again. Lowry topped his masterpiece in Game 3 with yet another clutch performance here, scoring 33 points including the game-winning dagger over Walker to seal the win in double overtime. When the Raptors were reeling in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics nailed five straight threes to threaten elimination, it was Lowry that stepped up with two heavily-contested threes over Tatum and Brown to give the Raptors life. This entire series can be summed up by one player, and that is Lowry. When he is going, when he is the best player on the floor, the Raptors win. It’s that simple, and it’s been that way for nearly a decade.

Four — Gutsy: It looks great in retrospect, but it was not an easy call for Nick Nurse to downsize with Powell instead of either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol to close the game. Nurse made the switch after the Celtics burned them from three through Walker drawing two defenders in the pick-and-roll, and Nurse was forced to counter. He brought in five wing players to match four for the Celtics, and bet big that his forwards could muscle Daniel Theis around the rim while also having enough quickness to stay in front of Walker out top. Boston still got their chances, but the Raptors buzzed around the floor, played great help defense, and best of all, the benefit came on offense. Without a center on the floor, the Celtics had a harder time trapping Toronto’s guards out top, which created either one-on-one matchups, or catch-and-shoot chances when the Celtics doubled. Nurse had thus far been hesitant to downsize in this series, as he really values the rim protection from his centers, but the best playoff coaches are the ones who can roll with the punches, and again, Nurse shows his value.

Five — Overblown: Nurse did catch a lot of flack for running a simple isolation for Powell to end the first overtime. Toronto had the ball with 19 seconds in a tied game, but instead of running something complex, Nurse opted to have Powell dribble out the clock before pulling up for three. It looked too rudimentary from the Coach of the Year, but that was the economical and sensible decision. First, the Raptors needed to be absolutely sure to leave zero time on the clock, and to avoid a turnover, because this series has shown that even 0.5 seconds can make a world of difference. Second, going to Powell there made sense as the Celtics switched everything on the play, so Powell had a good matchup against the shortest Celtics defender in Walker who couldn’t contest his shot at the apex. Powell missed and it looks bad, but he delivered in the end.

Six — Exhausted: In order to make the smallball lineup work, Nurse needed the world from Anunoby. Not only was he needed to come to the three-point line and potentially switch onto Walker, Brown, or Tatum, but Anunoby was also expected to battle Theis down low. There were times where Anunoby committed to helping which left the lob open for Theis, but that’s as much the fault of his teammates for being unable to contain penetration as it is on Anunoby for making the wrong read. The bottom line is that Boston’s pick-and-roll offense was stopped in its tracks, there weren’t nearly as many collapsed sequences that resulted in open corner threes, and it forced the Celtics into playing isolation. Anunoby was also diligent in cleaning up the defensive glass, hit a three late and set up Powell for another, and not to be overlooked, was able to win three jump balls for the Raptors during the overtime periods to secure extra possessions. Anunoby continues to show in these playoffs that he is a budding star, perhaps not in the conventional sense with his scoring, but definitely with his versatility on defense.

Seven — Redemption: Gasol’s only contribution in overtime was a lob to Anunoby at the end of the first overtime period that was inexplicably ruled as a non-shooting foul on Tatum, but this was still a huge performance for the Big Spaniard. Gasol struggled mightily in Game 5, so much so that he shaved his head to cure the frustration, but his woes continued into the first half of Game 6. After missing another easy layup, Gasol nearly ripped his jersey in half as he checked out and had to walk to the tunnels outside of the TV broadcast to shake his frustration. Gasol’s turn in the rotation was skipped at the end of the second quarter, and it was reasonable to ask if Nurse would stick with him to start the second half. Again, that was the right call by Nurse, as Gasol came out much more determined by blocking Tatum at the rim, sticking two threes, and a baseline jumper in the third. Toronto’s rotation is already short enough as it is, and Nurse can’t afford to give up on a player, so similar to last season where Nurse rode it out with Fred VanVleet, it was the same with Gasol and he delivered.

Eight — Numb: Serge Ibaka wore a protective boot on his left foot in practice on Tuesday, and was questionable for Game 6. You would never be able to tell that he was hurting based on his performance. Ibaka breathed life into the Raptors when they were stuck in the mud in the first half, firing off three triples to get the Raptors out of a double-digit deficit and back in striking distance. Like Gasol, Ibaka watched the fourth quarter and overtime from the bench, but was active and engaged, including at one point giving Anunoby a live demonstration of how to defend the center position during the timeout. Having unselfish veterans is absolutely crucial in tight playoff games, especially in the case of Ibaka, whose unwavering confidence in his three-point shot has come up huge both today, and in Game 7 against the Sixers last year.

Nine — Decent: Nurse turned to Matt Thomas for a brief stretch in the second quarter, and again those minutes were solid. Thomas only made one extremely difficult bank shot over Smart, but that alone tells you the threat Thomas wields if the Celtics were willing to put their best defender on Toronto’s eighth man. Thomas is doing just fine on defense despite appearing to be an obvious mismatch, and Nurse should turn to him again in Game 7. With Powell finally arriving on the scene, maybe there isn’t as much time for Thomas, but he is a credible option and should be used in the first half, where the Raptors have consistently struggled to find their rhythm on open jumpers.

Ten — Big picture: The Celtics must be shaking their heads right now in the Gran Destino Hotel, thinking about how the Raptors were on the ropes twice only to be in a Game 7 with momentum on their side. Make no mistake about it — Boston gave everything it had into that Game 6 and couldn’t get it done. Maybe Powell’s outburst was a fluke, or maybe Lowry isn’t as dominant, but whatever it is, the Celtics can’t be feeling good. They should have taken this series already, especially with Pascal Siakam shooting under 40 percent, but now it’s do-or-die.

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