Photo credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
The second round of the playoffs is officially underway, and we’ve already seen some excellent moments. The Brooklyn Nets look unstoppable and the opening game of the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets series was highly entertaining.
Throughout the playoffs, we will be looking back at the best Raptor playoff moments from each round as they begin from the We The North era. Today, we move to round two, which has delivered both plenty of euphoria, as well as plenty of heartbreak for Toronto Raptors fans.
The team advanced to the second round or higher five consecutive years between 2016 and 2020, the only team in the league to do so during that time period. They managed to win two of those series in 2016 and 2019, but there’s been no shortage of incredible moments in between.
May 3rd, 2016: Kyle Lowry’s desperation heave forces OT vs. Heat
The first Raptors playoff game in the second round in fifteen years was certainly a memorable one.
After a long and grueling first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors found themselves pitted against the third-seed Miami Heat. Game 1 was no walk in the park either, as the Heat played stifling defence for most of the game.
They built up a nine-point lead with about two minutes left in the game, and fans began to leave the arena, thinking all was lost. I happened to be at Jurassic Park that night, and fans dispersed from there, ready to hit the subway home before it became flooded.
Then suddenly, a flurry of three-pointers from Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross. The Raptors found themselves within two points with only a few seconds left. The fans who were walking out suddenly stopped in their tracks and returned to their seats, just in case something great was about to happen.
Hassan Whiteside knocked down the second free throw, and Cory Joseph inbounded the ball. He actually almost threw it out of bounds, Lowry barely staying within the line.
He races to the halfcourt line, heaves up a high-arcing shot, and…
The fans who stayed at the Air Canada Centre went absolutely ballistic. Jurassic Park exploded. My cousin picked me up out of excitement, and while I was flailing over his shoulder, we were mobbed by fellow Raptors fans around us celebrating (true story – he’ll fact check this). To say that the hype levels were at a ten out of ten would be a massive understatement. There was a dude that painted his entire body red and wearing some knight’s armour (I’m not kidding) running around and chest-bumping everybody in sight.
Even Lowry couldn’t believe what had just happened.
Unfortunately, the Raptors went ice-cold in overtime and wound up losing Game 1, but they would rebound to tie the series before heading to Miami. Nevertheless, it was an incredible and surreal moment, and the Raptors managed to build on it.
Another fun thing that happened that night – we met the guy who had the famous Bismack Biyombo sign that became a huge meme during the playoff run. Super nice guy!
Some heroes don’t wear capes.
May 15th, 2016: Raptors deliver a masterpiece and make their first East Final
The Raptors had been in one East Semifinals Game 7 fifteen years prior, and it didn’t end so well for them that time. This time, however, was a little different.
Having narrowly survived a do-or-die Game 7 against the Pacers, and with the Raptors heading to yet another elimination game against a very good Miami team, fans were nervous, and rightfully so. Their star players, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, had seen their fair share of playoff struggles, and coming into this game, had the opportunity to take the Raptors somewhere they’d never been – the Eastern Conference Finals.
That is exactly what they did.
Kyle Lowry had one of his most brilliant playoff performances ever. DeMar DeRozan poured in 28 points of his own. Bismack Biyombo shined as a fill-in starter for the injured Jonas Valanciunas, posting 17 points and 16 rebounds while doing a terrific job protecting the rim. The Raptors wound up obliterating the Heat by 27 points and ended the series with a bang.
For the first time practically that entire playoff run, the Raptors looked dominant, and managed to take over a playoff game. They outscored the Heat 30-11 in the fourth quarter and completely demoralized them as they ended their season. It was a game that was essentially a massive pressure release for the fans and team alike, proving that they had some killer instinct after all.
It was the signature game for what had been the most successful season in franchise history to date. Although they wound up losing in the Eastern Conference Finals, the team had finally broken through and accomplished something nobody before them did, and endeared Lowry and DeRozan to the fans’ hearts.
May 5th, 2019: Kawhi Leonard saves the Raptors season in Philly
In a game and series where the Raptors struggled to get anything going, they called on their superstar, Kawhi Leonard. He delivered in every conceivable way.
Fast forward to the year 2019, where the Raptors found themselves against the third-seed Philadelphia 76ers. While the Raptors were perhaps the best team overall in the Eastern Conference that season, Philadelphia may have had the best collection of star talent.
The general manager at the time, Elton Brand, had swung two massive in-season trades, bringing in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to complement their two homegrown stars, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The result was three very good-to-elite scorers with one of the game’s best point guards feeding them, and a swarming defence on the other side.
The Sixers used this to jump out to a 2-1 lead on the Raptors, blitzing them in Game 3. The Sixers, by all accounts, had looked to take control of the series; they rattled the Raptors, and Joel Embiid dominated the interior, all the while celebrating and infamously running around with airplane wings after an and-one.
Desperate to avoid going down 3-1 on Philadelphia’s home court, the Raptors needed to lock in. Unfortunately, most of the team struggled. The man who didn’t was Kawhi Leonard, and practically by himself, he led the Raptors to one of the most important wins of their championship run.
He single-handedly kept them in the game, and hit timely shot after timely shot to put away the Sixers. The Raptors tied the series 2-2, regaining home court advantage. They could have very easily lost that game, and it would have been very difficult to take three straight off that Sixers team. Kawhi Leonard had other plans and kept the series alive, helping the Raptors to live another day and still have a shot to win.
Which brings us to…
May 12th, 2019: The Shot
The shot heard ’round the world.
One long week after that fateful Game 4, the Raptors and Sixers each won big on their home floors to set up a deciding Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena. It was a low-scoring, defensive game, and with each passing possession, you could feel the teams getting worn down.
The Raptors played only seven players that night, and two of them actually had decent games: Serge Ibaka, and of course, Kawhi Leonard. The rest of the team couldn’t get anything going offensively, and naturally, they called upon their star player once again.
The Raptors managed to pull away a bit in the final minute, but as they were trying to protect the lead, the Sixers charged back furiously. They turned the ball over with ten seconds left, and Jimmy Butler scurried back the other way for a layup to tie it at 90.
And so, the stage was set. 4.2 seconds on the clock, and a shot to either win it, or go into overtime very clearly exhausted.
It was off to Kawhi, defended by Simmons. Four dribbles into the corner. The ball goes up. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce.
The typically-stoic superstar erupted in emotion. Scotiabank Arena went wild. The Sixers began to walk off the floor, stunned, and in tears.
The time between the release and the ball going through the hoop was about four seconds, but it felt like four years. What could have very easily ended in heartbreak – something Raptors fans had become accustomed to over the years – ended in triumph.
This was perhaps one of the biggest moments to ever occur in Canadian sports history. After The Shot, the entire aura around the country changed. People who weren’t basketball fans were suddenly talking about the Raptors. Practically every restaurant in Toronto was at full capacity on game nights. The Shot was like a jolt of energy that electrified the country, and swept up Canada like a tidal wave.
That was the moment that made Canada believe this Raptors team was truly different from the groups before them that had let them down. That was the moment that Canada, and the entire NBA, knew the Raptors were for real.
Eighteen years earlier, the Raptors were in the exact same position, against the exact same team, at the exact same spot on the floor. Vince Carter missed the shot that would’ve sent the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Kawhi Leonard did not. The rest is history.
September 3rd, 2020: OG Anunoby did not shoot trying to miss
The Raptors really have a penchant for buzzer-beaters in the second round, don’t they?
It’s September 2020, and the Raptors had just finished their first-ever playoff sweep of the Brooklyn Nets in the Orlando bubble. Next up was the Boston Celtics, who had put together a nice season behind the stellar play of Jayson Tatum, who made his first All-Star appearance and flourished as the lead option.
The Celtics decidedly won Game 1, and narrowly escaped Game 2 with a victory on the back of a ridiculously hot shooting night from Marcus Smart. Suddenly on the ropes, Game 3 became a must-win for the Raptors, being unable to afford going down 3-0.
The Raptors got stellar play from their guards, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, to take Boston to the wire. Trying to hold a tie on Boston’s final possession and potentially force a shot clock violation or overtime, Daniel Theis slipped by Pascal Siakam on a cut. Kemba Walker found him for the easy bucket, and suddenly the Celtics led by two with 0.5 seconds remaining.
Brad Stevens, always known for his great after-timeout plays, pulled out another trick from his bag: he placed seven-foot-five Tacko Fall to guard the inbound pass from the six-foot Lowry. At the exact right second, Lowry zipped the ball between Fall’s hands, all the way across the court to the opposite three point line.
OG Anunoby had snuck across the baseline and wound up at the three-point line all by himself. He caught the ball and hoisted it up in only 0.3 seconds over Jaylen Brown flying at him.
He doesn’t shoot trying to miss. Obviously.
There were no fans in the arena at the time, which is unfortunate considering how unbelievable a play it was. The pass from Lowry was brilliant to even find Anunoby at the wing, and the awareness from Anunoby to get the shot up over Brown and in time was stellar. It made for an incredible moment in what had been a frustrating series to that point.
Had they gone down 3-0, the series would have been all but over at that point, and Boston likely would’ve carried that confidence en route to a sweep. Instead, the Raptors rallied to tie the series at 2-2, and facing elimination in Game 6, forced overtime and eventually won to set up a winner-take-all Game 7.
Although the Raptors came up short, barely losing in Game 7 to be eliminated, they fought back to make it a special series, one that brought the team closer together in strange circumstances, and showed the league that even without Kawhi Leonard in tow, they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
OG Anunoby’s shot made that possible.