And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
— Thunder Road, by Bruce Springsteen
One of the very few advantages of being forced to work from home is that I am ready to take that very short walk from my dining room table “home office” to the couch, my front seat to watch NBA basketball. On Wednesday, I noted from my “office” that Celtics - Raptors Game Six was close with about four minutes left. Because it was about 6PM here on the West Coast, I made the executive decision to transition from working man to NBA fan, figuring that the last several minutes of the game would take about ten minutes to finish.
Two overtimes and about 40 minutes later, I knew that I witnessed one of the all-time great NBA playoff games. Both teams had opportunities to win in regulation, in the first overtime and in the second. Both teams had players who didn’t miss a second of game action in the second half or either overtime. Both teams fought through exhaustion to make great plays to give their teams the best chance to win. The Raptors were keyed by their two hobbit guards, often forced to cover skilled Celtic wings six inches or more taller — but neither Kyle Lowry nor Fred VanVleet backed down. Instead, they keyed the Raptors incredible win, staving offf elimination for one more night.
During the first round, I wrote:
Over in the North portion of the Eastern Conference, the defending champion Raptors are up 3-0 over the Nets, despite playing two small guards together most of the time. Or more accurately, the Raptors are up 3-0 because they play two small guards together most of the time. In my pre-playoff piece.
I described Kyle Lowry as a “gamer”. As proof, 6’1’’ (on a good day) Lowry is leading his team in rebounds in the playoffs, with almost 9 per game. And my Gritty Over-Achiever nominee for the Raptors, undrafted Fred VanVleet (who is also listed at 6’1” but is not as tall as Lowry), started the playoffs with this line in Game One: 11 for 15 from the floor, 8 for 10 from three, 11 assists, and 30 points. My friends, that is a great game even for a full-sized NBA player. He followed that up with a 24 points and 10 assists in Game Two, and 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists on 6 of 10 from three in Game Three. Hobbits rule in the Great North.
In Game Six of the second round, the hobbits again ruled, with Lowry making the key shot at the end of the second overtime which brought the game to a merciful end. Lowry, VanVleet and 6’3’’ Norman Powell (who towers over the other two) led the way in the fourth quarter and the overtimes.
All of which made Game Seven must-see TV. Everyone I talked to about the game between Game Six and Friday night said they were going to watch it, and knew I would be too. Game Sevens are almost always great, and this game between the gritty Kawhi-less defending champs and the talented young Celtics promised to live up to the hype. It did not.
While the game was close. close alone does not make a great game. A great game is defined by great players doing great things, playing at the top of their game. Game Six had a lot of that, Game Seven did not. Great games are exciting. This one was...tense.
While each team had some good runs to take the lead the game, I felt like the runs were keyed by the other team’s failings more than anything else. Jaylen Brown was the only Celtic starter who shot 50% or more from the field — and he went 1 for 7 from three. As a team, the Celtics shot 24% from three, and went a dreadful 13 for 23 from the free throw line. Overall, the Celtics shot only 40% despite having 12 steals.
Steals are live-ball turnovers which almost always lead to easy transition baskets at the other end. Absent those run-out baskets, the Celtics would have probably shot 35% or less. Those 12 steals were part of 18 Raptors turnovers, and many of the “steals” were actually just terrible Raptors passes thrown directly from a guy in a white uniform to a guy wearing green.
The Raptors also took some truly atrocious shots, including several “what are you thinking” heaves by Game Six hero Lowry. And while the Celtics had only one starter above 50% from the field, that was one more than the Raptors. The Raptors shot 41% overall, 29% from three. They did make their free throws, which kept them in the game. Until Marcus Smart made a tremendous block on Norman Powell’s fast break lay-up that would have tied the game in the last minute. The Raptors then gave up a rebound on the free throw at the other end, and that spelled the end.
All in all, the teams looked tired, because they were. The greatness and grit of Game Six led directly to the quality of the play Friday night. Fatigue leads to bad decisions, and the Raptors in particular made a lot of bad decisions. Which is too bad, because the entire season, and the playoffs, have been a tremendous testament to the Raptors players, coaches and organization. They will be able to look back on the season with a great deal of pride, but I am sure that right now it just hurts.
Other thoughts about the playoffs
1. The rested and confident Miami Heat must be very happy the Raptors won Game Six, forcing the Celtics into that grueling Game Seven. Once the Celtics recover, it should be a great series.
2. The Nuggets refuse to go quietly into the night. Being down 3 - 1 to the higher seeded veteran Clipper squad on Friday, and down 16 or more in the third quarter of two straight close-out
games, did not faze the Nuggets. In today’s game, the Nuggets turned a 19 point second half deficit into a blowout win, at one point going up 16 — a 35 point turn-around in 20 minutes of game time. Of course, the Nuggets do have a guard who can make the
ball magically float in front of him. Look, no hands:
3. The Lakers also led their series 3 - 1 going into Saturday night’s game against the Rockets. Unlike the Clippers, the Lakers did not take their foot of the gas. Unlike the Nuggets, the Rockets did give up. My guy Danny Green played a good game, going 4 of 6 from three with an incredible plus 35 (!!!) during his 25 minutes on the floor. The announcers gave a shout out to the 2013 Spurs - Heat series, in which DG was seconds away from a legitimate shot at Finals MVP. In particular, Mike Breen talked about the “Danny Green cut” in which he goes baseline from weak side to strong side for the corner three. And just like in 2013, he drained it.
4. And finally, you gotta love this line from a recent ESPN article. I will be merciful and not identify the writer.
“Of the 22 teams who have outscored their opponents by 18 or more points this postseason, only four have lost the game.”