With their season on the brink and title repeat hopes in jeopardy, the Toronto Raptors outfought Boston for a dramatic series-tying 125-122 double-overtime triumph on Wednesday in the NBA playoffs.
Kyle Lowry led Toronto with 33 points and Norman Powell added 23 off the bench in an emotional thriller that resembled the intensity of a heavyweight boxing matchup.
The defending champion Raptors equalised the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi-final with a winner-take-all game seven set for Friday, a conference final against Miami awaiting the winner.
“We play every possession like it’s our last and find ways to pull out victories,” an exhausted Lowry said after playing 53 minutes.
“That was two hard teams playing hard. Win or go home. Get it done. Don’t matter who has to do it. Ready for game seven.”
The Raptors won their first NBA crown last season but NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard left in the off-season for the Los Angeles Clippers, who defeated Denver 96-85 in a Western Conference semi-final to seize a 3-1 edge over the Nuggets.
Leonard just missed his first career NBA playoff triple double with 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists to spark the Clippers, who can advance with a victory on Friday.
Powell made a crucial steal and fast break layup plus a free throw to lift Toronto ahead 121-117 with 38 seconds remaining.
“I was just really focused on the defensive end and let that spill over to the other end,” Powell said.
“I pride myself on making winning plays. The game called on me to be aggressive and that’s what I did. It’s what I play for. It’s what I pride myself in playing for.”
Boston’s Jayson Tatum answered with an inside jumper but Lowry hit a fall-away jumper – Toronto’s sixth successful shot in a row – to put the Raptors ahead 123-119.
Tatum sank a 3-pointer to pull Boston within a point with 6.2 seconds remaining but Powell sank two free throws and Marcus Smart missed a last-chance 3-pointer for Boston.
“We didn’t play as poised as we needed to down the stretch,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “We didn’t take care of the ball as well as we needed to. We had some turnovers that just killed us.
“Got to embrace the challenge. This is what adversity is about. We have to give everything for game seven.”
Brown scored 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to lead Boston while Tatum had 29 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists and Smart managed only his second career triple double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Fred VanVleet added 21 points for Toronto, and German center Daniel Theis had 18 points for Boston.
“They are defending champs. We’ll get their best every time,” Boston’s Kemba Walker said. “We fought hard. We made plays. I’m confident. We have a good group of guys. I know we will respond.
“We have to find a way.”
Teams exchanged emotional words as they departed the court, cooler headas preventing more as intensity nearly bubbled over before Friday’s decider.
“A lot of emotions and things like that swirling,” Brown said. “It’s an intense series. It’s a lot of testosterone. Things like that happen. Grown men should be able to keep it respectable.”
Fifty years of futility
The Clippers have never reached a conference final since the franchise began play in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, but they are on the verge of ending a half-century of futility by advancing past the second round of the playoffs for the first time.
The team spent eight seasons in Buffalo and six more as the San Diego Clippers before moving to Los Angeles in 1984.
The Clippers jumped ahead 26-12 after the first period and the Nuggets never led as Leonard’s squad shined despite shooting a season-low 41.8 per cent from the court.
“We just focused, came out knowing the game plan, gave our energy in those first five minutes and it carried over from there,” Leonard said.
When it comes to closing out the series on Friday, Leonard said the Clippers must “just be consistent, play defence, share the ball, everybody having the mindset of playing every possession”.
Nikola Jokic led Denver with 26 points and 11 rebounds.