In the game, it was the terrible turnovers, the stretches of stagnant offense and a double-digit deficit with less than five minutes left. In the series, it was the blown layups, the clean looks that clanked off the rim and the heartbreaker that put them in a 2-0 hole. On the season, it was the departures of arguably the best player in the league and 3-and-D wing that came with him, followed by a cavalcade of regular-season injuries.
The Toronto Raptors overcame so much. And there they were, with a minute left in Game 7, down by two points, on a fast break.
If they could squeak by the Boston Celtics, they'd find some rhythm and play better in the next round, coach Nick Nurse thought. That's what happened last year, after the four bounces that changed the franchise forever. And they had their chances on Friday, right down to the end.
Norman Powell, the fifth-year guard who has made a habit of saving the Raptors in the playoffs since his rookie season, raced down the court in transition. They didn't have the numbers, but Powell got to the rim. If it were someone other than Marcus Smart who met him there, he might have tied the game.
Smart swatted the layup away, though, and Boston maintained control. Kemba Walker told coach Brad Stevens not to call timeout and his teammates to stay spaced. In the end, the Celtics survived by the skin of their teeth. Before Walker's dump-off pass to first-year veteran Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum's free-throw rebound and Williams' stop against Fred VanVleet, Toronto had held them scoreless for three minutes and without a field goal for five.
The Raptors got nothing easy, but they allowed nothing easy, either. "This has been a grueling series," Stevens said after Boston's 92-87 victory. In all his years of NCAA Tournament runs and playoff battles, Stevens has never seen so many different defensive coverages. The Celtics, who had the league's fourth-best offense in the regular season, were always on their toes.
"Right when something worked, the next play it didn't work anymore," Stevens said.
In some ways, Toronto's entire season, and the fact that it came so close to extending it, was a monument to pure effort. It started two 6-foot guards and played a style of defense that, regardless of the scheme, often requires multiple full-on sprints on the same possession. Some teams do everything they can to avoid getting in rotation; the Raptors committed to rotating better and closing out harder than anybody else.
"Our defense was everything," Kyle Lowry said.
Lowry is the kind of player who laughs at his game's complete lack of flash, a former No. 24 pick who changed his reputation from malcontent to future Hall of Famer, a six-time All-Star who wasn't selected until his ninth season. VanVleet, who went undrafted four years ago, spent the last couple of weeks glued to Walker, even reprising his Finals role as the one in the box-and-one. Unlike Tatum and Jaylen Brown, whose wings each span about 7 feet, Lowry and VanVleet don't look like disruptive defenders. But they were the foundation of an elite defense just the same.
"I know we don't get All-Defensive teams and all that stuff, but we did our jobs," Lowry said. "And we hold it down. We took pride in being able to guard bigger guys and doing what we had to do."
Long before he gave VanVleet his Finals MVP vote last June, legendary coach-turned-broadcaster Hubie Brown loved to say that you set screens for one reason: To make defenders think. The best way to understand Toronto's defense, which ranked second in the regular season and translated to the playoffs far better than the one that ranked first, is that it makes ballhandlers think.
The Raptors did not let stars get comfortable, and they did not wait until the postseason to give them different looks. They pressured playmakers on the perimeter, but that wouldn't have been as effective without VanVleet's deflections, Lowry's charges and Marc Gasol helping everybody stay on a string. Opposing teams could get "open" 3s, but they wouldn't come out of familiar actions and Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby would probably be flying at the shooter.
All series, Toronto made the Celtics react to its defense. It limited Walker to 2-for-11 shooting in 51 minutes in Game 6 and 5-for-16 shooting in 44 minutes in Game 7, closing both with the 6-7 Anunoby at "center" for maximum switchability. The Raptors used Tatum's score-first mentality against him, and in the process probably aided his development as a passer. "We had plenty of opportunities," Lowry said, lamenting that they couldn't score enough against a Boston defense that was excellent in its own right.
In Stevens' words, Toronto would "never, never go away." This is the defining element of the Raptors' past two seasons, and the seven-game slugfest had several moments that felt like callbacks to last year's title run. They lost Game 2 because of an avalanche of Smart 3s, rather than a single dagger from the Andre Iguodala. They came even closer to falling behind 3-0 than they did against the Bucks. They got a double-overtime fadeaway from Lowry in Game 6, rather than a bunch of unguardable jumpers from Kawhi Leonard. Game 7 had a lot in common with the final game against Philadelphia, but they'd already had their miraculous buzzer-beater in the corner.
Resilience, however, is not a choice. Just as playmakers can't appear to be poised under pressure without a tight handle and an array of moves, teams can't solve problems without a versatile roster and a flexible coaching staff. Boston was able to match Toronto on those fronts, but beating the defending champs still took everything it had. "We should definitely be hardened," Stevens said. And, as much as the loss must hurt, the Raptors should definitely be proud.