The Toronto Raptors will not repeat as NBA champions.
Their time in the Orlando bubble is over. Their lengthy, emotional, and very unusual season has ended.
They Raptors battled to the bitter end in a back-and-forth Game 7, before suffering a heartbreaking 92-87 loss that awarded the Boston Celtics the second-round series, 4-3.
The two teams traded leads all night long. The Raps fought back from a 10-point disadvantage in the fourth quarter and made it a two-point nail-biter in the final minute. Turnovers got the best of the champs – a whopping 18 of them. Kyle Lowry fouled out in the dying seconds, and the talent packed Celtics came away the winners, thanks to big scoring from Jayson Tatum (29)and Jaylen Brown (21).
The Raps didn’t play their best basketball in this series, yet they still gave themselves a chance until the final seconds. VanVleet led the way with 20 points, and Lowry had 16, Serge Ibaka 14, Pascal Siakam 12.
“'It’s sad,” said Lowry. “We had more to give.”
Basketball fans won’t get the Eastern Conference final rematch many imagined between the best two teams in the regular season: the Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks. Instead it will be the No. 3-seeded Celtics facing the No. 5 Miami Heat.
The Raps will leave Florida for the first time since arriving in mid-June. They arrived ahead of all other teams, created their own two-week bubble in Naples before they headed to the NBA’s Disney bubble in Orlando, proudly pulling up in buses embossed with Black Lives Matter.
“I get to go see my babies, man. I’ve been gone damn near three months without seeing my kids,” said the All-Star point guard. “I don’t want to be going home, I really don’t, and I know my kids don’t want me to be home, because they wanted their daddy to win a championship, but I get to go see my babies, man.”
It’s the first series loss during Nick Nurse’s tenure leading the Raptors' bench. Some key players are set to enter free agency, such as VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka.
“I’m proud of the emergence of these guys, Freddy, Pascal,” said Lowry. “You guys know I have a real soft spot for Freddy, and I know he’s going to be the future franchise point guard and I’m just so proud of him, man. I’m happy for him because he went through this whole season knowing he’s going to be a free agent, he played his ass off, and now he’s going to be rewarded. And that, to me, it means the world, that he can take care of his family, take care of his family at a high level because he’s doing his job at a high level.”
This rendition of the Raptors could look quite different next year.
“Some of these guys, you don’t know if you’ll see them, you don’t know if you’ll play with them, so yeah, that’s tough,” said VanVleet. “I think you got a lot of free agents this season and stuff, everything is up in the air, so it makes it that much tougher to go out on a loss and we would have hoped to continue to compete for a championship and our team was definitely good enough to do that, we just didn’t play up to that performance level for long enough in these playoffs.”
Friday’s loss concludes a wildly entertaining series in which the Raptors lost the first two games, misplaced their identity several times and breathed new life into the series more than once. They just couldn’t muster the magic again to close out Game 7.
They showed how pliable and determined they can be when they bounced back from the beat-downs from Boston, punching back after the flashy buckets from the gifted Tatum, Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart. It will go down as a series that contributed some key moments to Raptors lore, from the OG Anunoby buzzer-beating winner in Game 3 to the heroics of Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell in the Game 6 double-overtime stunner.
They will be criticized as well. There were the stretches of poor shooting throughout the series and the moments of lacklustre energy. Pascal Siakam never quite re-gained the same form in the bubble he had during his all-star regular season. Gasol took a long while to get going. Those costly turnovers in Game 7 will haunt them.
“You wanna be able to get there to the end. That was always the goal for us, and it’s obviously disappointing,” said Siakam. “It wasn’t normal circumstances, and I tried to fight my way through it, I just didn’t have it, you know, I didn’t play well, I didn’t really help my teammates as much as I could have. But one thing that I did, is I gave it all out there.”
Friday’s contest was a home game for the Raptors inside the Orlando bubble, which means they had control of the video boards inside the gym. The franchise tried to provide a touch of home to begin the night: a recording of O Canada from a past home playoff game inside a packed home game at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, with its excited fans taking over the singing. The adoring rambunctious chorus served to remind the Raptors players of the nation of die-hard supporters watching north of the border, living with their every bucket that night, hoping they would provide them with some sports magic to watch well into the fall.
It was the sixth time in franchise history the Raptors were playing in a Game 7.
Boston asserted its will early, flexing its muscles with a 13-0 run in a flurry of Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. It did not deter the Raps. Their luck began to change and they charged back – VanVleet hitting, Ibaka hitting – and they built a four-point lead by the end of the quarter.
The two counter-punched and traded leads in the second like a game of tug-of-war. Then the Raps struggled with turnovers and watched the Celtics convert steals into runaway buckets. Lowry, who had been the star for Toronto in recent games, had only hit a single field goal on six shots.
Boston launched another big run – 15-3 – and seized back control, heading into the locker room toting a 50-46 lead.
The Raps settled down in the third. Lowry found his scoring touch in a seven-point burst, and Boston was ahead just 72-71 headed into the final quarter.
Boston went on another of their menacing scoring runs to start the fourth – this one 7-2. VanVleet scored some big ones to answer. Siakam had a burst near the end too. The Raps trailed by 10 and kept chipping away. But the turnovers did them in.
Lowry fouled out inside the final minute with his team charging back and had to watch from the bench. VanVleet air-balled a game-tying attempt with a defender in his face. The foes gave one another hugs of appreciation after a memorable series.
“Listen, we didn’t play great in this series. There is just no denying that,” said Nurse. “But pretty much the whole rest of everything else we did this year, we played awesome. With overcoming a lot and just never really wavered. It’s almost hard to believe we were really within a possession of continuing on here tonight.”
For these Raptors, that loss is going to sting for a while.