TORONTO — Kyle Lowry had a massive Game 7 against the Miami Heat in 2016, scoring 35 points and flirting with a triple-double to carry the Raptors to their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.
On the eve of Toronto’s do-or-die Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, and with a second appearance in the conference finals on the line, the team captain reflected on that big night three years ago.
“It was the moment,” Lowry said at the team’s practice facility, his young son Karter in tow. “Game 7s are what you play for, what you work for. It’s one of the best games in your career and in the playoffs you get to a Game 7 you know how hard it’s going to be.
“For me you go out there and you play hard. That Game 7 in Miami it was just about doing whatever it takes to win. This game it’s just working as hard as you can, leave it all out there.”
The 33-year-old guard said there’s no point comparing this win-or-go-home game to 2016 — “Different game, different series, different time, different team.”
But if there’s anything the Raptors can take comfort in is the fact that Lowry and Toronto traditionally bounce back with big games after losses.
“We’ve had some moments of not playing very well, of getting knocked around,” said coach Nick Nurse. “This team almost always responds. I expect them to respond tomorrow.”
After dispatching Orlando 4-1 in the opening round, the conference semifinals have been a see-saw series with wild shifts in momentum. After the Raptors demolished the Sixers 125-89 in Game 5 — a franchise record for margin of victory in the playoffs — Philadelphia fired back with a 112-101 rout of its own.
A win Sunday would be viewed as just another step closer to the ultimate goal for a squad that was rebuilt for immediate success in mind: a spot in the NBA finals this season. A loss Sunday would be seen as an unacceptable ending, a second-round exit that would raise far-reaching questions about the franchise, including the future of star Kawhi Leonard.
Nurse had zero interest in entertaining that possibility on Saturday.
“I don’t know. I won’t talk about that. Talk about that later,” the coach said.
Nurse believes he hasn’t seen the best of his team yet.
“I still think there’s ceiling to get to,” he said. ”I think you’ve seen some high peaks in these playoffs, right? We’ve got to diminish some of these valleys a little bit, but maybe that’s just who we are. But the high peaks are pretty damn good. Pretty damn good.”
There are a couple key areas to clean up. The Raptors haven’t shot the ball well, particularly from the three-point line — odd for a team that scorched opponents from the perimeter in the regular season.
“We had a body of work where we were the best shooting team in the league, from the Marc Gasol trade on, so it’s not like I’m pie-in-the-skying it here. So I think (the opportunity there) is exciting,” Nurse said.
Danny Green led the way shooting a career-best 46 per cent from three in the regular season. But other than a solid Game 5 in which he had five threes, he hasn’t found his offensive groove against Philly. He’s made just eight in the other five games of the series combined.
“He’s a phenomenal shooter,” Nurse said. “(But) maybe the greatest shooter in the history of this game (Steph Curry) was shooting 25 per cent through five games of a series. Golden State’s laid a couple eggs in the playoffs, too, you’ve just gotta look around a little bit. Things happen, you’ve gotta bounce back. That’s where we are.”
The Sixers have dominated the glass, outrebounding Toronto in every game but one. In Game 6 the Raptors gave up 16 offensive rebounds.
“We have to be more physical in our blockouts, we have to be super-conscientious of finding bodies running into the basket, and then we’ve got to rebound like some grown men,” Nurse said. ”We’ve got to go up and grab ‘em with two hands and squeeze ‘em and hold onto them and get in a strong body position.”
The Raptors have to deal with a healthy Joel Embiid, who shrugged off the upper-respiratory infection that dogged him in Game 5 to control both ends of the floor in Game 6 with 17 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.
Embiid played just 35 minutes on Thursday. Nurse was asked: If he plays 40 or more on Sunday, what then?
“I think the minutes things for both teams are going to be off the table,” Nurse said. ”So, I would expect the best players to play absolutely as many minutes as they possibly can all the way through until it’s decided.”
Ahead of what could be their season finale, the Raptors appeared relaxed and confident on Saturday. Their veteran roster might be one reason. The Raptors have the more experienced roster with two NBA champions (Leonard and Green), and numerous players that have gone deep into the post-season.
Gasol said he draws confidence in the team’s bounceback ability. He called Sunday another learning opportunity.
“Growing, it’s not always on your terms. You’ve got to continue to grow whether you like how it’s going or not. And it’s especially when things don’t go your way that you show your growth,” he said. ”I think this team faced, especially after Orlando in Game 1 (a loss), a little bit of adversity. How we responded, I liked that. When we were down 2-1 (to Philly), I liked how we responded to that as well. And now we’re 3-3.
“Every time we hit a challenge we came out and responded.”
Leonard, who was the Finals MVP in 2014, was asked about the Game 7 jitters.
“Every playoff game, you come in nervous or with some anticipation. So just go out and play. You can’t let your nerves get the best of you. Just go play basketball,” he said.
Asked what he’s been doing to stay relaxed in his down time, Leonard said: “Just hanging with my family, hanging out with my daughter, watching TV, playing games with her.
“That’s the most important thing that’s really going on. Basketball is just go out there and play, do your job, have fun. That’s all you can do, leave it all on the floor. The most important thing in life is family and health.”
Lowry was asked what it would mean to play in another Eastern Conference finals. He spoke for the team in that it’s got greater goals in mind.
“It means a lot. Means a chance to go to the Eastern Conference finals, a chance to get another step closer to our goal, our team goal, my individual goal to make the finals,” he said. “Means a lot just overall for our team, our organization, take another step towards where we want to be.”