But the Celtics beat the Raptors at their own gritty game, with Tatum keying a 92-87 victory Friday that lifted Boston into an Eastern Conference finals showdown with the Miami Heat. The 22-year-old wing posted 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, unleashing an array of pretty jumpers and unselfish passes while shouldering a heavy burden by playing 44 minutes.
“He’s a superstar,” Celtics guard Kemba Walker said of Tatum. “He showed it tonight. Anybody who had any questions or doubts about that, he showed it. Game 7. He’s a special kid.”
The two sequences that did the Raptors in were the types of committed hustle plays they have known well over the past two seasons. With a minute to play and Boston up two, Marcus Smart rallied back in transition as Norman Powell drove hard to the basket. Changing directions as he backpedaled, Smart somehow put himself into position to leap high and block Powell’s layup off the glass with his left hand.
Then, with 35 seconds left and Boston still clinging to a two-point lead, Tatum crashed hard into the paint to chase a missed free throw by Celtics forward Grant Williams. Tatum secured the offensive rebound, drew a foul and hit one of two free throws to give Boston a three-point edge. In both cases, the Celtics out-willed a team that had made its reputation and won its championship through the force of its will.
“It was an unbelievable battle,” said Lowry, who finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. “Those guys beat us fair and square. It’s sad. We had more to give.”
Boston was indeed the better team throughout the series, although Toronto pushed it to seven games by handling late-game scenarios with greater poise. In Game 3, Lowry threw a gorgeous cross-court pass to set up Anunoby’s miracle three-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining. In Game 4, Lowry pulled out every trick in his deep bag to keep Boston at bay. In Game 6, Powell came off the bench in one of Nurse’s unconventional lineups to turn in a sensational scoring performance that stunned the Celtics.
The Raptors finally ran out of magic Friday, with Nurse attributing his team’s 18 turnovers and offensive struggles to fatigue after playing his starters heavy minutes throughout the series. For all-star forward Pascal Siakam, it was an especially bitter ending. The 2018-19 most improved player shot just 38 percent from the field and 13 percent on three-pointers in the series. He again looked disjointed late in Game 7, scoring just 13 points, throwing away the ball at key moments and struggling to generate good scoring opportunities in isolation.
“I wasn’t really able to help my teammates,” Siakam said. “I take a lot of the blame.”
Siakam aside, Toronto was more wistful than dejected in defeat. The Raptors had never quite performed well enough on offense to establish themselves as a top contender in the bubble, and inconsistent contributions from Siakam and center Marc Gasol limited its ceiling. After more than two months in Florida, Lowry said it was “time to leave” and return home to his family.
“(The bubble) was challenging,” he said. “It was well put together. We used our platform for our voices to be heard on social injustices. The bubble was a success.”
Nurse’s wheels, meanwhile, were already turning to the future. He planned to sit down with Siakam to review film from the playoffs and rebuild the 26-year-old forward’s confidence for next season. The coach of the year also acknowledged that major roster changes could be coming, given that three of his starters — Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Gasol — are free agents.
The Raptors entered this season intent on giving its core group a chance to run it back rather than rebuilding in the wake of Leonard’s decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency. They succeeded on that count, surpassing preseason expectations by claiming the East’s second seed with a 53-19 record and sweeping the undermanned Brooklyn Nets in the first round. But VanVleet’s strong season should make him a top target for offseason suitors, and the 35-year-old Gasol could be headed elsewhere after his role narrowed during the playoffs.
“I already miss this team,” Nurse said, not long after the final buzzer. “That was a hell of a two-year run. Some amazing moments. I think everybody should be really proud of them. It’s a special team.”