Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 92-87 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One — Exhaustion: The Raptors ran out of gas at the end of a proud and defiant championship defense. They played catch-up for the entire fourth quarter, getting it to within one possession in the final minute, but just couldn’t deliver. There’s plenty of fingers to be pointed every which way, but when everyone struggles, it’s the circumstance that is at fault. Toronto looked dead tired at the end of it all, making mental mistakes and missing makable shots. It’s a hollow ending that leaves you wondering what if, but there’s no sense in holding onto regrets. The champions fought until they had nothing left. You really can’t ask for more than that.
Two — Missing: The biggest elephant in the room for the series was the discrepancy in star performances. On one hand, you have Jayson Tatum delivering the first 25-point, 10-rebound, and 5-assist effort in Game 7 since Kobe Bryant, and on the other you have Pascal Siakam. It’s not entirely that simple, but when the series comes down to one possession, it just is that simple. Siakam gave his best effort, logged heavy minutes, played shutdown defense for long stretches, but just didn’t deliver on offense. The Raptors did everything in their power to operate around it, but you can only go so far without a go-to player. If it didn’t bite them tonight, then it would have in the later rounds. Siakam has earned everything he’s been given, and set the bar high for himself, and he needs to keep that in mind this summer. It’s a sour note to leave on that will corrupt his reputation among Raptors fans, but he can bounce back from this. An offseason to sharpen his skillset — with a specific focus on ball-handling and shooting — is badly needed.
Three — Mistakes: It’s not as if the ending came down to a four-bounce miracle like last season. Toronto lost the final minute of the game on self-inflicted mistakes. First, it was Kyle Lowry dragging down Grant Williams under the rim for his sixth foul of the game. Second, it was Norman Powell for failing to box out Jayson Tatum who secured the offensive rebound. Third, it was on Fred VanVleet for dribbling the air out of the ball before hoisting up a blocked 3. Four, it was on Nick Nurse for allowing VanVleet to aimlessly kill the season like that in the first place. Had the Raptors just avoided any of those mistakes, in the order listed above, they could still be alive. But then again, that’s how the entire game went for the Raptors. The defending champions didn’t so much lose their composure, as they did their wits. Again, both mental and physical exhaustion played a huge factor there.
Four — Costly: Besides the final minute, the Raptors lost this game on turnovers and offensive rebounds. They had 18 turnovers leading directly to 31 points for the Celtics, and gave up 10 offensive rebounds which created extra opportunities for Boston. Credit the Celtics for being locked in all night, but so many of these errors could have been avoided if the Raptors had more focus. The live-ball turnovers in particular were brutal, and it usually came in the pick-and-roll with their guards. VanVleet had some awful drives leading nowhere with the pass being kicked out directly to the Celtics for dunks, and even some of the layups that he did attempt led to him falling over and a mismatch going the other way. For all of Toronto’s struggles in this series, turnovers and rebounding were manageable until this last game. Again, that has to sting all offseason.
Five — Quiet: It’s unreasonable to expect a 34-year-old Lowry, averaging over 40 minutes in the series, to consistently deliver superstar performances against an All-NBA defender in Marcus Smart. Lowry’s aggression just wasn’t the same at the start of the game, which has been the barometer in this series. It didn’t burn them early because other players stepped up, but those easy chances dried up. Lowry did turn it on for short bursts going to the basket, but it was too little, too late. And without Siakam to pick up the slack, there was just no life for Toronto’s offense. Still, that shouldn’t take away from an otherwise awesome performance from Lowry, who provided two all-time moments with his inbound pass in Game 3, and with his turnaround jumper in Game 6. The championship elevated the entire organization, and nobody more so than for Lowry, who proved yet again that he is the most important player on the team.
Six — Young: Nurse turned once again to his smallball lineup to finish the game. Boston didn’t score efficiently against that lineup, but that’s really more of a reflection of how tired everybody was by the end. Still, it’s interesting that Nurse trusted the most important moments of the year to a smallball lineup when he favored having a center all season. Perhaps it was just a reflection of the matchup, but maybe that’s something to be considered moving forward. Toronto already has the two most crucial pieces of a smallball lineup — two interchangeable forwards who can guard all five positions — and it just needs a bigger wing to complement them. It will be interesting to see how that factors into the Raptors’ team building strategy this offseason.
Seven — Aging: On the flip side, the Raptors left their two aging centers on the bench when all the chips were down. Serge Ibaka gave them life early on with his jumper and by posting up over smaller defenders, while Marc Gasol just looked out of place. The future of the center position is the biggest question going into the break: Will the Raptors bring back Ibaka or Gasol, or perhaps neither? It’s worth noting that their only backup option is Chris Boucher, who Nurse tried in short doses early in the series before scrapping him altogether, and he also happens to be a free agent. Either way, it doesn’t appear as if the Raptors have a defined future at the center position.
Eight — Proud: Powell followed his heroic performance in the overtime periods of Game 6 with another sharp showing Friday. He didn’t have as many chances to score, but that’s a reflection of Boston’s defense more than a lack of effort. In the few chances he got, Powell scored efficiently and was active on defense. Powell is what he is — an efficient finisher who can’t quite get his own shot or create for others — and is good in his Sixth Man role. He doesn’t always bring consistency, as he was missing in action for the first five games and three quarters of the series, but he is capable of making a difference and isn’t shy of the spotlight. With Powell being locked into a reasonable $11-million contract, there is both the option of keeping him, or moving him at surplus value.
Nine — Tough: Full credit to the Celtics for gutting out this series. The Raptors touted all year that they would be a tough out, and Boston was up to the task. Their talent was overwhelming at times, especially in Games 1 and 5 where they just overran the Raptors, but they also showed their mettle in two close games. On Friday they made fewer mistakes and defended at a championship level, and in Game 2 they overcame a 12-point deficit and won it at the end. Boston’s future is incredibly bright with Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and it’s worth noting that they won this series even without Gordon Hayward. They’re going to be a force in the East for years to come, with the continued growth of Tatum being the ultimate determinant of their ceiling. Most stars look ordinary against Toronto’s defense, but Tatum looked even better. His handle, shooting, and finishing at the rim is noticeably improved. Well done to the Celtics.
Ten — Champions: Although it came to a bitter end, never forget what the 2020 Raptors stood for. This was a proud, unselfish, smart team who showed the heart of a champion each time they stepped on the floor. Yes, they were a piece short and a big piece at that without Kawhi Leonard, but they won in spite of his absence much more than they missed him. Remember the quality of this team, the way they played together, the fight they showed, their refusal to quit, because that is what all future iterations of the Raptors will be measured against. The title is no longer theirs, but that attitude needs to be preserved forever. After 25 years, the Raptors have finally found their identity. Now it’s time to build on it.
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