Hubie Brown, the basketball broadcaster and coaching sage, once summed up the key to building a championship-worthy NBA team. Talent is important, sure. But talent is never enough.
“Chemistry is always what it’s all about,” Brown said. “The Lakers had (hall of famers) Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, and they never won a championship (with Baylor). I always use that as a reference point. I never assume a team is going to have the necessary chemistry.”
Given that eternal bit of wisdom, how could anyone have assumed the Raptors, rebuilt around Kawhi Leonard last summer and substantially rejigged with Marc Gasol’s arrival at the trade deadline, could find the necessary stuff in time for Sunday’s Game 7? This is a league in which the winning teams often point to the virtues of year-over-year continuity as the linchpin to prosperity. It’s how the Raptors styled themselves in the DeRozan-Lowry era. Overcoming a relative lack of familiarity — a relative nanosecond of time spent together in the post-season’s pressurized cauldron — is no small feat.
Toronto’s 92-90 win over the Sixers, punctuated by Leonard’s epic four-bounces-and-in jumper over Joel Embiid as time expired, wasn’t a work of art as much as it was a study in the virtue of work. They didn’t beat the Sixers so much as they overcame their own shortcomings — in this case 38-per-cent shooting from the field — by simply refusing to give up.
It didn’t need to be pretty. It was enough to get them to Milwaukee. Game 1 of the Eastern final against the Bucks goes Wednesday in Wisconsin.
There were moments Sunday when the Raptors looked like a team that didn’t trust each other. Leonard looked like he didn’t trust many of his teammates. Some of Leonard’s teammates looked like they didn’t trust themselves. As Gasol was saying in the lead-up to the game: “When we struggle offensively, we tend to gravitate a lot toward (Leonard). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
On Sunday it worked, just barely. The best player won, not necessarily the best team.
The Raptors didn’t simply lean on Leonard. On a lot of possessions they piled the weight of the entire franchise on his shoulders as they handed him the ball. In lieu of finely honed chemistry, the Raptors leaned on probability: They figured their best chance probably involved trusting Leonard and hoping for the best. The former NBA final MVP had never taken more than 30 field-goal attempts in a game, playoffs or regular season. On Sunday he fired up 39 en route to 41 points, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter.
But make no mistake — they needed more than that one guy to get the win. Every winning team does. Kyle Lowry, nursing a sprained left thumb, was a relentless bulldog who made a collection of big plays, including a key steal with about 1:20 to play that set up the Pascal Siakam layup that put Toronto up 89-85. Gasol defended Embiid with the usual intelligence. Siakam, if he couldn’t make shots, provided credible defence and rebounding. And Serge Ibaka made big shots en route to singlehandedly outscoring Philly’s bench 17-8.
“There was a stretch there where (Ibaka) was maybe the second most confident guy out there behind Kawhi,” said Toronto coach Nick Nurse. “It was big.”
And the Raptors, who were swamped on the boards most of the series, turned that particular tide on Sunday. They outrebounded the visitors 49-41 and wormed their way to a whopping 16 offensive rebounds that loomed large.
And if their offensive alchemy was suspect, their defensive connectedness was real. Defence was the difference in the series, really. Toronto’s prevailed. On Sunday the Raptors forced the Sixers into a pair of fourth-quarter shot-clock violations and held them to a single field goal in the final three minutes. Leonard held Jimmy Butler to 16 points on 14 shots. Gasol, who played an epic 45 minutes, held Embiid to 21 points on 18 shots.
That’s how the Raptors shot a putrid 7-for-30 from three-point range, combined for a series-low 15 assists as a team and still lived to play another day.
“We just were doing it all (defensively),” said Nurse. “We were pressuring the ball, we were corralling the right guys for a split second with two, we were either rotating or hustling back to our own (man) so just because we put two on the ball it didn’t mean something was automatically open. And then we rebounded it after we contested. Those possessions defensively were awesome. Again, a lot where they didn’t even get a look at the basket.”
It wasn’t exactly the way anyone would have drawn it up. Leonard missed a free throw with 10.8 seconds left that set up Butler’s tying layup with four seconds to go. That gave the Raptors occasion to strap the team’s hopes to Leonard’s back yet again, watch him drive baseline and launch his improbable bouncing game winner.
But the beauty of it all was this: They’ll get to keep working out the kinks against the Bucks.
“I think we’re still doing that. To this today, we’re still figuring it out,” Gasol said in the lead-up to the game, speaking of the team’s work-in-progress nature.
Said Nurse after it was over: “I think there’s still room for growth in this team. (Philly) was a very, very good team with unbelievable offensive firepower, size, talent … We hopefully grew, are continuing to grow, through advancing through this series.”
Indeed, the Bucks, the only NBA team to win 60 games during the regular season, are a formidable squad.
“(Milwaukee plays) a totally different style than we’ve just been through in our last two series,” Nurse said. “(The Magic and Sixers) were set play teams, pretty methodical on offence … Not to say Milwaukee doesn’t do some of that, too, but they would much rather spread the floor, give it to a guy, put their head down and take it to the rim, put it in the rim. If you send help, they’ll fire it out and they’re going to shoot a ton of threes.
“So it’s a little different style that we’re going to see, we’re going to have to adjust to that very quickly, obviously, have to forget about how happy we are pretty quickly because it’s a hungry team, it’s a very deep team. We’re going to have to continue to grow and have to play better.”
Before the game Nurse attempted to downplay the gargantuan nature of his first career Game 7 as an NBA head coach.
“You would tend to think that in a long coaching career this is really, really, really big — biggest moment ever,” Nurse said. “But I think back to when I was getting ready to coach the Manchester Giants versus the Birmingham Bullets back in 2000 (in the British league championship), it meant a lot to me in the moment. I can’t imagine it meaning any more.”
Speaking of the British league — in the early going, Game 7 had the look of a contest between a couple of teams weak-kneed from too much time at the pub. Or maybe those were just early jitters. The Sixers, who didn’t score until the game was nearly five minutes old, missed their first nine shots before J.J. Redick drilled a three. Toronto missed 10 of its first 13. It wasn’t so much two teams going mano a mano as much as a bunch of NBA players swapping miss for miss. Chalk it up to bundles of nerves, or butterflies.
In the quiet moments before Sunday’s series decider, Sixers coach Brett Brown talked about his plan to project a “demeanour of solid.” He wasn’t anticipating solid bricks, or both teams playing as though they were evacuating them.
It got better. It turned into a battle worthy of the stage. The victory that put Toronto into the Eastern final for the second time in franchise history might not have showcased a team playing seamlessly together. But it certainly gave us one that looked willing to fight alongside one another until the end.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk