Raptors v Celtics - Game 7 Preview

by Chris O'Leary

As the players get set for the biggest game of their season to this point, it’s not that much different on the sidelines. 

Nick Nurse will go into the second Game 7 of his head coaching career on Friday night, while Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens goes into his fourth. Both took a moment on Thursday to soak in how special these games are and how competitive this series has been to get to this point.  

“These are great opportunities. These are things that when you’re a kid, this is what you want to do,” Stevens told reporters. 

“Out of the last four weeks I think I’ve slept better (Wednesday) night than I did at any time. I know we competed and I know there are things we can clean up. I’m also looking forward to this because this is what you’re here for.”  

“I think certainly, this is kind of why you coach,” Nurse offered. 

“I'm not saying for a Game 7 in general, but I'm saying the super competitive playoffs, (having) a lot on the line. It's kind of the crazy love of a coach, right, to want to be in the middle of that, to go and put yourself through that. That is the kind of love of coaching and love of competition. There's some enjoyment (in that).” 

If Game 6 (or the past few years of Raptors playoff history) is any indication, Game 7 will be an anxiety-ridden journey for fans, as this seesawing series will get its conclusion and one team’s season will come to an end. Here are a few things that the Raptors will need to do in order to wake up on Saturday morning with more games to play. 

Make it spicy 

While he struggled with his shot in Game 6, Pascal Siakam’s midrange make in the second overtime was a key contribution at a point in the game when every made bucket mattered. Siakam was aggressive on the floor, playing a game-high 54 minutes. He finished the game with 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists and a game-best plus-12 at the end of the night. Some scoring, though, would make a big difference. Think of it this way: The Raptors have the Celtics at the brink with Siakam at less than his best. If he can put in a game that’s up to his all-star calibre, it should be the difference maker in this thing. Nurse sounded optimistic about his young star player on Wednesday night. 

“I’m not saying it’s there,” he said. “But it’s getting closer. There’s a possibility that it could be there when the ball goes up Friday.” 

Playoff P(owell) 

If you were just waiting for Norman Powell to get some serious minutes in a seriously tight game with season-ending implications hovering over him, your patience paid off in Game 6. Powell came through with a 23-point effort that was laced with timely baskets and defensive plays, all set to break the spirit of his opponents (as the Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers and now the Celtics can all attest). 

“He saved us. He saved our season,” VanVleet said of Powell after the game. Kyle Lowry had a more colourful reaction to it, that you’ll just have to trust us on. 

It may not be fair to ask a bench player to come in and routinely be your secondary scoring option, but a lively, active Powell makes a tremendous difference for the Raptors, as we saw through much of the regular-season. 

“I keep saying that all these guys are critical players to our success and to us being the best version of ourselves,” Nurse said. 

“We need some scoring punch from Norm. He's our off the bench guy to change the rhythm on offence or get us some transition or just to be a different type of player and score than everybody else. It was much needed, certainly.” 

Small ball to the rescue? 

It didn’t come without risk, but Nurse’s small ball lineup was a well-thrown wrench into the Celtics’ defence. It sounds like the combination of Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, VanVleet, Siakam and Powell could reunite on the floor for Game 7. 

“I like it at the offensive end and there were still some things on the defensive end where we made some mistakes,” Nurse said, “but you have to expect that. Guys were out there doing some things that they’re not used to doing. 

“OG’s become a rim protector on every possession for five possessions in a row. Then he’d mess a couple up and he’d have a few more good ones. 

“They competed and played. I thought at the other end it really spread the ball around. NOrm was making shots, OG made a shot, he drived and kicked one out. There was a lot more happening at the offensive end that I thought made us difficult to guard.” 

With that success, of course, Nurse expects Stevens to adjust and be ready for it in Game 7. 

The little things 

Marc Gasol’s frustration was obvious in the first half of Game 6, after he missed a layup that he’s spent his entire life making. The 6-11 centre screamed in anger at himself for the miss and not long after went to the locker room. He returned in the second half with a new focus and most important, the feel for the game that he’s shown throughout his career. He hit his first three of the series, part of an eight-point night that also saw him block a shot. It’s a small thing, but it gave the Raptors a lift and showed others that might not be themselves in this series that all it takes is one play or one sequence to start to get back on track. 

Lock in from the jump ball-onward 

Nurse has sounded surprised as this series has progressed just how important the starts to these games have been. Normally, he’s believed in the length of the game and there being time to make up early deficits, but this series has been one where the hammer has dropped a few times in the first quarter and his team hasn’t been able to recover. Games 1 and 5 are the two most blatant examples, where the Celtics outscored the Raptors a combined 64-34 in those first quarters. The game can’t be won in the first 12 minutes, but if the Raptors are competitive and the score is close -- they’re still minus-5 after first quarters in their three wins -- they’ve shown they can take the punch, give it back and stay in the game. 

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