ORLANDO –The morning after, once the heartbeat returned to normal and the yelling subsided and the Raptors-Celtics playoff series became a lot more interesting and unpredictable, Nick Nurse was interrupted by a buzzing cell phone.
Brendan Brown was on the line and he thanked the Raptors coach and said: “It felt like my dad got a chance to be in the bubble for a moment.”
That father is Hubie Brown, the Hall of Famer and longtime coach and current TV commentator who, because he’s 86 and there’s a pandemic, had to sit out this restart. And partly because of Brown, the defending champs were spared from the brink of elimination.
Instead, they only trail the Celtics 2-1 after Nurse drew up a Game 3 play that launched an improbable 3-point buzzer-beater. In terms of impact and history-making, OG Anunoby’s shot won’t replace the iconic Kawhi Leonard rim-bounce that sent the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago, but it saved Toronto’s season nonetheless.
“We were desperate, man,” said Nurse.
After the game, Nurse casually mentioned to the media how he discovered that play from an old Hubie Brown instructional video. Toronto had only a half-second for Kyle Lowry to inbound the ball and throw a pass that traveled across court to a wide-open Anunoby, who snuck behind the Boston defense and released just before time expired.
Nurse is the freshly-named NBA Coach of the Year for steering the Raptors back into the title mix despite losing Leonard last summer to free agency. Nurse is known for occasionally using methods considered unconventional or outdated and breathing life into them. Such as: In last year’s Finals, Nurse surprised Warriors guard Steph Curry with a box-and-one, a defensive tactic designed to stop one player and is mainly confined to youth basketball.
A few years before then, Nurse was invited to Brown’s home and he approached the door sheepishly, wondering if he belonged.
“I got there early in the morning and we spent the whole day talking basketball,” said Nurse. “Then last year in the playoffs I got a chance to sit down with him during that run because he was doing our games on TV. He’s one of the great ones. It was bizarre for me to be sitting there talking to Hubie, you know what I mean? I was a young coach coming up. I mean, it was appointment viewing just to watch him announce games. Because I felt I was learning so much from him.”
There are moments in almost every playoff series, especially the tightly-contested ones, that freeze in time and flip the switch. The Raptors are hoping that shot changes the vibe in this second-round series that, until it swished, had belonged to Boston.
The proud defending champs had few answers for the tactics, execution and energy shown by the Celtics, who are deep and well-matched with Toronto and cause problems, starting with Jayson Tatum but not limited to that All-Star.
Now, there’s new swagger in the Raptors and drama in this series. And besides the shot, some of this is due to Lowry, the team’s leader and spiritual heartbeat. He shook off a Game 3 knee to the groin to cleverly throw the inbounds pass over Celtics center Tacko Fall, who’s a foot taller. But his determination was evident well before then; Lowry broke free of a pair of sub-par games, where he was outplayed by Celtics guard Kemba Walker, to deliver 31 points and burn 46 minutes Thursday.
A case can be made that Lowry is the most important player in franchise history, if he hasn’t supplanted Vince Carter for being the best.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody play the game harder,” said Nurse. “And that’s any place I’ve ever coached. I don’t know any higher compliment I can give the guy than that.”
These are challenging times for the Raptors, especially against the only team to beat them during this restart. Boston won once in the seeded schedule and looked impressive while taking the first two in this series. That said, with the exception of the Bucks, the Raptors were the most consistent team in the East all year, a mild surprise considering the loss of Leonard.
And now they must rediscover what has worked well for them before this series. A good start is Pascal Siakam, who filled the Kawhi role and had a breakout season where he became an All-Star, yet is shooting below 40 percent (and under 30 percent from deep) and still looking for a signature performance in the playoffs.
Norman Powell and Marc Gasol, until Thursday night, also suffered from frequent disappearance, and other than Fred VanVleet, there’s been inconsistency from others in the rotation.
“When you’re not playing that well either individually or collectively, we (had) to start making some shots,” Nurse said. “It was just a better performance from us, which I would see as encouraging. It’s a little bit more of who we are and who we’re used to being. For whatever reason we weren’t playing like ourselves. I’m not making any excuses for them kicking our butt. We needed to play better. It looks like we might be ready to start playing better.
“Give the Celtics credit, they’re playing great, they’re disrupting. Boston has played great. They’re really good, got tons of talent and shot-making. They brought it to us and we didn’t have any answers. They’ve been playing great and I imagine they’ll continue playing great, maybe a little harder. When you’re upset, as I’m sure they are right now, you become more aggressive. That would be a natural response from them after that game.”
The Raptors know what they just did. They prevented this series from being over. Going down 0-3 in a best-of-seven means you start the engine on the bus ride home. It’s not that Toronto is off the griddle just yet; Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are quite the obstacle to overcome.
What the Raptors must do is bring a game-face to Saturday’s contest, similar to the no-big-deal expression worn by Anunoby right after making that shot. The young forward just casually turned and walked toward the Toronto bench without any joy, like nothing happened.
“That has to be one of the most classic reactions of all times,” said Nurse. “I remember one other that was similar, when Larry Bird was a coach (with the Pacers). I think it was probably Reggie (Miller) who hit a step back three to win the game and Larry didn’t move, didn’t blink. It’s a cool moment and it’s nice for our team.”
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