TORONTO – OG Anunoby didn’t blink. He barely cracked a smile as he was mobbed by his teammates.
“Someone hit me in the nose,” the Raptors forward said after the game. “I’m mad about that, but it’s cool.”
You might expect that kind of reaction in the middle of December, after a player hits an inconsequential free throw in the first half of some forgettable regular-season contest. But from somebody who had just drained the biggest shot of his life – a buzzer-beating, game-winning, season-saving, series-shifting dagger? Even Kawhi Leonard let out a primal scream after his iconic four-bouncer.
But that’s OG.
“I know he’s excited,” said Fred VanVleet, shortly after Anunoby’s walk-off three-pointer gave Toronto a 104-103 victory in Thursday’s Game 3, and new life in its second-round series with the Celtics, which Boston now leads 2-1.
“I think that’s just his nature. I don’t think he’s a guy that’s going to run around the court. I mean, that’s just not his personality. So, that was true OG form right there, to knock down the biggest shot of his life and act like nothing happened.”
What happened will ultimately go down as a seminal moment in the history of a franchise that has produced quite a few of them over the past 16 months. The Raptors were a half-second away from certain elimination. Their remarkable, feel-good season was on life support. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, and it’s unlikely that they would have been the first.
Game 3 was a must-win, and after Kemba Walker’s spectacular pass set up a Daniel Theis dunk to put Boston in front by two points, it came down to one final possession and 0.5 seconds left on the clock.
The play was one that head coach Nick Nurse borrowed from an old Hubie Brown videotape. It was initially drawn up for VanVleet to take the shot, with Pascal Siakam as the second option. Appropriately, it was executed to perfection by the team’s two best and most important players on the night, and through the first three games of the series.
Gazing over the outstretched arms of the Celtics’ seven-foot-five giant Tacko Fall, who was brought in specifically to guard the inbound, six-foot Kyle Lowry sailed a perfectly thrown pass to an open Anunoby in the opposite corner. With Jaylen Brown closing out hard, Anunony – who barely had time to catch the ball – released a high-arcing jumper that danced around the inside of the rim and fell through the net.
In normal times, you would have felt the energy of the crowd – in this case, more than 19,000 Celtics fans gasp and groan, and Boston’s TD Garden would go eerily quiet. In the NBA bubble, players create the atmosphere, and in that very special moment, they all ran over to Anunoby to celebrate.
“When I took that shot I expected to make it,” said the ever-stoic 23-year-old. “I don’t shoot trying to miss. Every shot I shoot I try to make it. So, I wasn’t going to act surprised because I wasn’t surprised.”
“That’s OG’s moment, man,” Lowry said. “That’s a great moment for that kid and I’m so happy and so proud of him, man. Don’t take away – that pass was nothing, that shot was everything.”
“He’ll get a lot of text messages and he needs the credit. He deserves all the love and celebration he’s getting tonight, that kid works extremely hard and, like I said, it’s his moment. Let him live in it and then I’ll ruin it tomorrow when we’re watching film and I tell him what he messed up on.”
Humble as he may be, Lowry’s pass was impressive and, notably, the Raptors aren’t even in the position to win that game if not for their veteran point guard and most valuable player.
Lowry – who came into Game 3 shooting 10-for-28 in the series, including 1-for-12 from three-point range – got a text from a close friend earlier in the day.
It read: “Stop waiting”
“That was pretty much the game plan for me tonight,” said Lowry. “Just stop waiting and be aggressive from the jump. He was correct.”
Although his shot still wasn’t falling – he hit just two of his eight attempts – Lowry was in attack-mode early. He scored eight of Toronto’s first 10 points and 11 in the opening quarter – all of them coming in the restricted area or at the free-throw line.
The game was a slog. Eventually, the Raptors’ lockdown defence would clamp down, holding Boston to 38 per cent in the third quarter. At some point late in the evening, Siakam would get it going and the slumping VanVleet would knock in a pair of big threes.
But for most of the night, Lowry carried them on his 34-year-old shoulders, despite playing all but 90 seconds of the game, including the entire second half. Defending Brad Wanamaker at the rim late in the third quarter, Lowry took a knee to the midsection and crumpled to the court in pain. He played through it, and through the noticeable fatigue he was feeling in the final minutes, to put together an all-time performance.
“I mean, obviously I got balls of steel,” said Lowry, who put up a game-high 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting.
Nurse likened Lowry’s night to his masterpiece in last year’s title-clinching Game 6 win over Golden State.
The team’s performance was reminiscent of that double-overtime Game 3 win over Milwaukee in the Conference Finals. They were in a similar situation – down 0-2, fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive. That could have been the end of the line, and at times it both looked and felt like it was going to be, but they found a way to pull it out and it sparked an unlikely turnaround – four straight wins and a trip to the NBA Finals.
“We’ve had a lot of gutsy performances from this crew,” said an emotional Nurse after the win. “It’s kind of what this group is. It’s Kyle and Fred and Pascal and Norm [Powell]. There are a lot of guys who have fought their whole lives to get to where they are, amid other expectations. We got to the half down 10, and just weren’t catching any breaks. The ball wasn’t going in. The ball was bouncing funny. It was just like, man, to reach in and find that gutsiness for that second half... I’m not sure that doesn’t rank up there with our gutsiest performances.”
After getting blown out by Boston in the series opener last weekend and then playing well enough to win but falling apart down the stretch of Game 2, the Raptors seemed down and out. It’s through Lowry’s sheer will and Anunoby’s clutch shot-making that they have this new life. Maybe this is what galvanizes them. Maybe this is what they needed to start feeling like the defending champions again.
“With all due respect to Brooklyn, I don’t think that got us ready to play at the level we needed to be ready for Game 1,” VanVleet said. “I think the transgressions of those few days, [not knowing] whether we were gonna sit or play, coupled in with laying that egg in Game 1 – it was a lot. Then we played our butts off in Game 2 and didn’t come out with a win. We expect a lot of ourselves, so to be down 0-2, I mean we knew it wasn’t over, but nobody was happy. People were pissed off, the mood wasn’t great. All we needed was one [win] to get the juice back, a little magic [to] get the momentum going on your side. We’ve got to try and tie this thing up Saturday."