The minute the news broke that Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in July 2019, the Toronto Raptors, who just won the NBA championship, were exiled to obscurity by most. Extinct if you will.
But what these hot take critics failed to recognize was that the Raptors won the NBA title, not just Kawhi Leonard.
It was truly a team effort for the Raptors a year ago. Aside from Leonard, the Raptors team remained in tact. And so did their championship DNA.
It has been on full display throughout the Conference semis against the Boston Celtics.
In Game 3, just 0.5 seconds away from going down 0-3 in the series, Head Coach Nick Nurse draws up a game winning play. His trusted point guard Kyle Lowry delivered a perfect pass, across court to the hands of OG Anunoby, who calmly sunk the 3 point shot as the buzzer sounded.
After getting their hearts snatched once again by the Celtics in Game 5, the tried and tested Raptors were resilient in a classic Game 6.
Their Game 6, double overtime thriller was the pinnacle of a fighting champion doing everything it could too stay alive and fight another day.
It wasn’t pretty, nor ideal for the Raptors, but they got it done as a team.
Rather than dissect the full 58 minutes, let’s pick it up late in the 4th.
With two seconds to go in regulation, OG Anunoby appeared to have an opportunity to give the Raptors a last-second lead. He went up for an alley-oop on the inbounds pass, but Jayson Tatum fouled him, stopping the inbound and giving the Celtics life. As a result the game went into its first overtime period.
Once overtime started, the Raptors were given a spark from the most unlikely of candidates, Norman Powell.
Of the Raptors’ seven most trusted players, Norman Powell is the worst defender. Despite his poor series, Powell was on the floor at the end of the game, part of a decision by Raptors coach Nick Nurse to play a small lineup down the stretch. Ironically enough Powell was inserted for his defense, despite it being his weakness. Nurse wanted the Raptors to be able to defend the Celtics small perimeter centric offensive attack, and Powell allowed them to do so.
While in to help defend, Powell awoke from his playoff shooting slump.
He had come into the game averaging just 8.6 points per game in the series. At times it was so ugly he was almost unplayable. But when the Raptors needed a hero in the clutch, Powell delivered.
No Raptors player, not even the incandescent Lowry, scored more points than Powell in those final 18 excruciating minutes. In fact, he scored 15 of his 23 points in the last seven minutes of the game.
His 23 points were the second most by a Raptors player.
Who finished with the most you ask? Who else other than the Raptors foundation piece, Kyle Lowry.
At 34 years old, standing just over 6 feet, Kyle Lowry is the definition of “heart over height.” Lowry has that championship DNA flowing thought his body, seemingly never turning it off. Just look at him drawing charges in the all star game.
He played 53 minutes on Wednesday night, most of them with three stitches in his chin after taking an elbow from Brad Wanamaker in the second quarter.
Lowry scored 33 points, including the game-winning fadeaway jumper over Kemba Walker, to seal the Raptors 125-122 victory.
COLD BLOODED pic.twitter.com/l684qrNOPY
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) September 10, 2020
The Lowry shot that iced the game is obviously huge, but the deciding play of the game for me was the Normal Powell steal on Jayson Tatum.
Powell poked the ball away and was off to the races for a fast break and 1, giving the Raptors a 4 point lead.
YOU BETTER UNDERSTAND THE GRIND pic.twitter.com/03Qh18wvFJ
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) September 10, 2020
But beyond Lowry’s exceptional play and the shocking performance by Powell, the Raptors improbable win was defined by nearly every contributor doing something a little abnormal, a little outside his usual comfort zone within this very uncomfortable series, to keep the season going.
How about OG Anunoby?
Anunoby, the Game 3 hero, was playing outside of his comfort for most of the second half. He took the role of “big man” in the Raptors small ball lineup. It hadn’t been a rotation the Raptors used all series long, but Anunoby got it done.
Want him even more out of his comfort zone? Anunoby, the player with the least offensive credentials on the floor, attacked a close out by Kemba Walker, spun away from Theis’s help, and delivered a dime to a wide-open Powell at the top of the key.
Oh and he won 3 jump balls in OT, a task he is rarely ever assigned to do.
Want more examples? See Marc Gasol.
Gasol, whose play was veering toward lamentable tragedy status in the first half after missing a layup and being benched, returned in the 2nd half with vengeance on his mind.
After missing his first 18 3-pointers against the Celtics this season, his 19th dropped, the first basket of the second half. It gave Gasol confidence, something he had been lacking all series long. He went on to knocked down a mid range jumper, and another 3 pointer in the second half. He was no longer shy about letting it fly.
I could go on and on about Serge Ibaka giving pep talks during time outs, or Fred Van Fleet’s courage to shoot through his shooting woes in the first half, and it will all result in the prognosis:
The Raptors have a championship DNA. They’ll look too once again capitalize off it in Game 7 scheduled for Friday night.
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