Kyle Lowry had to sit down on the court for a few seconds to take it all in. He grinned and giggled like a kid.
OG Anunoby had just hit the second biggest buzzer-beater in Toronto Raptors history with hilarious stoicism to breathe some life into the defending NBA champions’ playoff run in the Disney World bubble.
The NBA’s restart has been about more than just basketball. It was nice, said coach Nick Nurse, to feel the pure joy of the game on Thursday night.
“There have been some heavy times for everybody. Heavy times from (COVID-19), heavy times from racial inequality, the stoppage in play. There have been some heavy times, and everybody has got their own personal stuff too,” Nurse said.
“So yeah, there is a little spark of some joy and some fun and wanting to get back out there and see if we can play better… Let’s see if we can build on that and maybe some of the joy and positivity from that will make us play a little more like ourselves.”
This has been an NBA season unlike any before, screeching to a halt on March 11 due to the novel coronavirus. Then George Floyd’s killing by a Minnesota police officer ignited protests across the U.S. and made racial injustice a major theme of the NBA’s restart.
The playoffs were threatened in the first round, not by COVID-19, but after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by Wisconsin police. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play. The league shut down for three days. The Raptors were among teams ”very close” to leaving.
The Raptors dropped an 18-point decision to the Boston Celtics in their next game back, Game 1 of this second-round series in Florida. There was zero joy. Nurse said basketball felt “funky.”
Then the unlikely happened on Thursday, when Lowry, like a soccer player launching a long throw-in, hurled an overhead pass that arced high above the outstretched hands of seven-foot-five Celtics centre Tacko Fall to a waiting Anunoby with 0.5 seconds on the clock. The ensuing shot was good, giving the Raptors a much-needed 104-103 win in Game 3.
In Toronto, 2,000 kilometres away, fans on patios — at tables a socially-distanced six feet apart — cheered. Drivers honked their horns. People on the street chanted “Let’s go Raptors!” “OG OH MY” was trending on Twitter for hours after the game. Life almost felt normal.
Anunoby’s shot was reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard’s spectacular buzzer-beater in Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal against Philadelphia. “The Shot” was the exclamation mark on Toronto’s historic championship run, and the magnitude of Anunoby’s buzzer-beater could make it forever memorable.
The play came on the heels of a demoralizing dunk by Daniel Theis with half a second left that appeared to spell disaster for Toronto. The Raptors would have trailed 3-0 in the series, a post-season hole that no team in history has ever come back from.
Nurse was asked: Can historic victories help a team’s momentum?
“(Thursday) night, the season was on the line. So that’s the biggest thing,” Nurse said. ”We had to get in the series because we weren’t in it really until we got a W in any fashion.
“‘The Shot’ becomes a super historical moment because of what happened in the end, we ended up winning the championship, and if we would have gotten knocked out in the next round it wouldn’t have been. So I think you’ve got to let some time pass and some history pass to see how iconic it becomes.”
There was no celebrating the moment Friday. Theis’s dunk and the buzzer-beater were the two final plays shown as part of an edited video session before practice.
But the mood, which “definitely wasn’t good after the first two games,” according to Norman Powell, had shifted.
“When you win, it’s a good feeling. You want to ride that wave. If you’re happy or feeling indifferent about losing and it’s just another game, then you’re probably in the wrong field,” Powell said. “To be able to get a win like that and get at least another two games to go out there and play, and pick up another win to even the series out (Saturday), I know it’s really big for us.
“Guys are excited, there’s more juice, there’s more momentum, and more up-beat feeling, more energized.”
Lowry was fantastic in the victory, finishing with 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds in 46 minutes, taking just a two-minute breather in the first half. The 34-year-old pushed his way into the paint like a player a foot taller.
“We have all seen this guy play like this a lot,” Nurse said of his six-foot guard. “OK, maybe it was more points in the paint he’s ever had in the paint in the playoffs — whatever. But we’ve seen him give this tremendous effort. You have heard me say many times, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody play the game harder, any place I’ve ever coached or watched a game or anything. It was all by sheer will and toughness.”
Lowry called an audible on the final jaw-dropping play. Anunoby wasn’t the intended target when they walked out of the huddle. The unique setup of the bubble arena — there are no fans sitting along the baseline — allowed Lowry to step back to launch the throw.
The six-time all-star refused to take any credit for the play, saying nothing should take away from Anunoby’s moment.
Powell had kind words for the Raptors’ point guard.
“(Lowry) brings this team his leadership, his grittiness, his toughness and how he approaches the game,” Powell said. ”He gives it his all using his body to take a charge, leaving it all on the floor and I think guys feed off that energy, feed off that momentum when you see him taking charges, diving on the floor, making the helpful play and doing what it takes to win. His whole purpose is about winning.”
The Raptors will face another stiff test against Boston on Saturday. The Celtics are a similarly cohesive group and like the Raptors take pride in their defence, playing hard, and playing for each other.
“We have a really competitive group, we have a really intrinsically motivated group,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “We were on the unfortunate end of a tough loss … lick your wounds. You’re feeling whatever emotions you’re feeling, and then you move on … for some people, putting a chip on the shoulder is the way to go about it. For others, it’s just being able to focus a little bit more on the task at hand and in that moment, everybody’s a little bit different in that.
“But at the end of the day, I love this group, I love their competitive spirit.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 4, 2020.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press