A few days ago the Toronto Raptors looked down and out. Now they have stolen the reins of this playoff series.
For the second time in three days, the defending NBA champs dug deep and beat the Boston Celtics, tying up a second-round series they once trailed 2-0.
Pascal Siakam had his best performance of this round with 23 points in Toronto’s 100-93 victory Saturday night in the NBA’s Orlando bubble. Kyle Lowry had 22 points, Fred VanVleet added 18 and Serge Ibaka contributed 18 off the bench.
The Raptors have a chance to take their first lead in the series on Labour Day Monday.
It was another vintage hard-nosed performance from the veteran Lowry. He added seven assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and a pair of blocked shots while shouldering another heavy workload: nearly 44 minutes Saturday after playing almost 47 minutes two nights earlier.
Raps coach Nick Nurse doled out heavy minutes to two other stars also: Siakam played nearly 46 minutes, and VanVleet played just shy of 45.
“There’s nothing to be resting for,” said VanVleet matter-of-factly. “Coach is putting his trust in us and communicating to a level where if you need a rest you get one, if you need him to call a timeout you get one.”
The Raps were hardly perfect Saturday night. They shot just 39.5 per cent from the field. Yet things were looking up from beyond the arc. They hit the most three-pointers they had scored yet in this series — 17 of them (out of 44 attempts). It was a positive sign for a club who struggled mightily from deep earlier in this series with Boston. VanVleet scored five of them, while Lowry and Ibaka each sunk four.
“It gets your swag going, gets your energy going, you play a little harder on defence,” said VanVleet of the three-point parade. “Obviously we build our foundation on defence, but you gotta make shots to win. So it was nice to see some threes go in.”
When the Raps are making more shots, it gives them more time to set up their half-court defence against speedy Boston, and slow them down.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 24 points and 10 boards, while Kemba Walker had 15 points and Jaylen Brown added 14. As a team, Boston made just 7-of-35 from deep.
Once again, the game was sprinkled with glimpses of leadership from Lowry. Just like he had done in Game 3, he jumped out to a hot-scoring 11-point first quarter, driving to the hoop and willing his way to the free throw line to get the ball rolling for Toronto.
The All-Star point guard stood tough under the hoop and put his body on the line to bait a hard-driving Brown into a charging foul. He was a key link in one of the prettiest plays of the game: VanVleet passed it to Lowry under the hoop, who then dished it off to a trailing Siakam for a running dunk. Lowry manufactured a steal off Boston big man Daniel Theis.
He recognized that VanVleet had heated up as the game went on, so Lowry continued to get him the ball, especially beyond the arc. He created for Siakam too, who elevated his game as well as the night wore on.
Lowry showed little excitement after the game, and reminded reporters how good Boston is.
“We know how tough those guys are,” said Lowry. “This is just one win. We just got to continue to get better. It’s the first to four, so try to get better every single night.”
For the first time in this series, Toronto held the lead after the opening quarter, 31-27.
Ibaka provided huge energy off the bench, as he hit his first three shots from deep, provided a big block and dominated the boards.
Both teams had 49 points at half-time. The Raps were lucky, considering they shot just 33 percent as a team in the half, VanVleet and Siakam in particular were struggling to make buckets, and Lowry was held scoreless in the second quarter after a big first.
Toronto continued to vary up its defensive looks it showed Tatum to keep him guessing.
The Raps stretched their lead to 10 early in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics consistently put dents in that, and it never felt comfortable. There were plenty of anxious moments in the fourth for Toronto fans — Brown rallying for 10 points in the quarter, Marc Gasol fouling out, Tatum bullying his way to the basket and drawing a foul to propel Boston to within five. But the Raps weathered it all, and hung on for the win.
“I think we made it tougher for them tonight, but they still got a lot of shots that they wanted to get off,” said Lowry. “But we’re just trying to contain those guards; Tatum, Brown, Walker, even [Marcus] Smart. We just got to continue to make it tough on those guys.”