Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has worked his top players hard in their second-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Don't expect that to change in the decisive Game 7 on Friday night.
Evenly matched with impressive weapons on both sides, these two teams have delivered what many expected: a rough-and-tumble back-and-forth duel that's going the distance after Toronto's double-overtime win on Wednesday in Game 6.
After a breezy first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, the reigning NBA champs have been fully tested this time around. It will take another top-shelf effort from Toronto's big guns to return to the league's final four at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
"I keep saying that all these guys are critical players to our success and to us being the best version of ourselves," Nurse said.
Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are averaging about 42 minutes a game in the series, just ahead of Pascal Siakam (40.5) and OG Anunoby (38.0). Serge Ibaka (22.9), Marc Gasol (21.5) and Norm Powell (24.1) — who broke out in Toronto's Game 6 win — are the other key cogs as Nurse has limited the rest of his bench to bit roles.
"We needed some scoring punch from Norm," Nurse said. "He's our off-the-bench guy to change the rhythm on offence or get us some transition. He's just a different type of player and scorer than everybody else. It was much needed certainly."
It has required some dramatics for Toronto to get this far against third-seeded Boston.
Down 2-0, Anunoby delivered a memorable Game 3-winning buzzer-beater on a long pass from Lowry that gave the Raptors life. The teams then split two games before Lowry anchored a 125-122 victory in Wednesday's Game 6 to stave off elimination, highlighted by Powell's 15 points over the 10 minutes of overtime.
Now it's the Celtics who are up against it, with momentum shifting Toronto's way for a winner-take-all showdown for a berth in the Eastern Conference final against the Miami Heat.
"Out of the last four weeks, I think I slept better last night than I've slept at any time," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said Thursday on a video conference call. "Because I knew we competed and I know there's things we can clean up.
"And I'm also looking forward to this because this is what you're here for."
Lowry was again a workhorse in Game 6, pouring in 33 points with eight rebounds and six assists over 53 minutes. The Raptors struggled late in the fourth quarter before eventually coming through in OT.
"We gave ourselves a shot and we know anything can happen," Powell said after the win. "Focus for 48 minutes together and leave it all out there."
Jaylen Brown had 31 points and 16 rebounds for the Celtics.
Boston is a 2 1/2-point favourite for the series finale against the second-seeded Raptors, who'll be considered the home team at the fan-free AdventHealth Arena near Orlando.
"I expected this to be a long series," Nurse said on a video call. "Thank goodness we've played just well enough to make it a long series. Hopefully we can play better tomorrow.
"But there's some special guys on this team — I've said that a lot — that really will compete at an incredible level. There's some IQ on this team that's incredible and there's some connectivity, which is special."
Siakam and Gasol will look to step up in Game 7. Gasol played 16 minutes in Game 6, picking up eight points and two rebounds. However, he did drain his first three of the series to give Toronto a boost.
Nurse played Siakam for a team-high 54 minutes despite ongoing struggles at the offensive end. The team's leading scorer this season had 12 points on five-of-19 shooting from the field.
However, he did manage eight rebounds and six assists while leading the team with a plus-12 rating.
"I liked the opportunities a lot," Nurse said. "It looked to me like he's getting closer to finding some better spaces and better areas to operate from and a better rhythm and tempo to his own game.
"They just need to go in now. They need to quit popping out and pop back in once in a while and he'll be much happier."
Awaiting the series winner is a well-rested Miami team. The fifth-seeded Heat completed a five-game upset of the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks last Tuesday.
This article by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press