The joy is back for the Toronto Raptors after they edged the Boston Celtics with an unforgettable buzzer-beater in Game 3, which kept their hopes alive for another NBA title.
OG Anunoby’s feel-good game-winning three-point shot rescued the Raptors from the brink of doom, and reframed this series completely. Falling into a 3-0 hole might have had the Raptors succumbing more fully to the heavy feelings they were experiencing in the Orlando bubble. Instead – down just 2-1 in the best-of-seven series – the Raps feel infused with new life.
“There have been some heavy times for everybody, heavy times from [COVID-19], heavy times from racial inequality, stoppage in play … everybody has got their own individual stuff, too” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said on Friday after his team’s film session. “I think there is a little spark of some joy and some fun and wanting to get back out there and see if we can play better. Let’s see if we can build on that, and maybe some of the joy and positivity from that will make us play a little more like ourselves.”
Toronto fans are re-looping video of Thursday’s final play, marvelling at every remarkable step of the sequence, from Kyle Lowry’s precision pass over the towering arms of 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall, to Anunoby’s swift and accurate release to beat the 0.5 seconds left on the clock. As with Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot last season in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-final against the Philadelphia 76ers, this comeback will become part of Raptors lore, because it may have saved a season.
This time, Toronto’s hero wasn’t the most obvious guy on the floor. The winning shot was made by the least talkative guy in the starting lineup, one known more for his defensive hustle than his scoring prowess, and a player who missed last year’s entire playoff run because of an emergency appendectomy. The straight-faced reaction from the enigmatic Anunoby further delighted his teammates and fans, and made the narrative all the more compelling.
“That has to be one of the most classic reactions of all time,” Nurse said, after seeing the replay for the first time Friday. “That brings a smile to your face.”
The Raptors spilled onto the floor to hug the stoic Anunoby. Lowry was among the first to throw his arms around the hero and shower him with congratulations. Toronto’s all-star veteran point guard was still oozing energy after putting on one of his vintage hard-nosed performances, scoring 31 points while playing 46 of a possible 48 minutes.
Norm Powell said the whole team was excited for Anunoby, knowing how hard it had been for him to watch last year’s championship run from the sidelines after his surgery. Powell added that he and Anunoby often work on shooting together, so Powell sees first-hand how diligently he trains.
“He’s worked really hard on his body and his game to be prepared for moments like this, so we’re really excited for him, happy for him that he was able to come through in a very pivotal game for us,” Powell said. “To see it pay off is really big.”
Powell said the players’ mood wasn’t good after the first two games, and now, knowing they have at least another two games in the season, it has lightened up.
“It’s a good feeling. You want to ride that wave,” Powell said. “Guys are excited, there’s more juice, there’s more momentum.”
The Raptors leaned heavily on just seven players on Thursday (except for a quick six-minute stint for Matt Thomas). Nurse isn’t saying if he intends to keep his rotation that slim.
“I’m not so sure I went into that game thinking I wasn’t going to make any subs. … Listen, the season was on the line, that’s all I can tell you and I’m coaching that way,” Nurse said. “I have no idea how it’s going to feel [Saturday, in Game 4]. I really do believe there’s some opportunities for some of these guys coming off the bench; I don’t know who but I do believe there is some. We’re probably going to find somebody, it’s probably going to be a wild card that comes into this series at some point, that’s all I can tell you.”