The Toronto Raptors live to fight another day thanks to a buzzer-beating 3 by OG Anunoby in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics.
Boston was on the brink of a commanding 3-0 series lead after Kemba Walker found Daniel Theis cutting behind the defence for an easy dunk to go up 103-101 with 0.5 seconds left. Toronto had one timeout left, but given the short clock in that situation, the odds were against them. Anunoby wasn’t fazed.
The Raptors admitted post game the play wasn’t even drawn up for Anunoby, who is the fourth option in the starting five. The first action was for Fred VanVleet to cut to the corner, then for Pascal Siakam to flash to the top to receive a pass. Given that Toronto was down two, there was also the option of lobbing it to Marc Gasol near the rim hoping for a tap-in. Anunoby was just supposed to space out.
The play opens with Anunoby in the right corner. Before the official even hands the ball to Kyle Lowry on the inbound, Anunoby is already starting his cut along the baseline to the other corner. The Celtics were zoning on the play, anticipating that the right corner was likely the target given that it’s a short pass away for Lowry, so Jayson Tatum stays in the corner instead of sticking with Anunoby.
As the play unfolds, the first move is for VanVleet to curl around a screen from Gasol. This is what causes the confusion, because Theis switches to cover VanVleet, while Tatum also anticipates VanVleet’s cut. This causes a three-on-two advantage on the left side of the floor as again the Celtics focus on denying the pass to the middle or to the right corner.
To make things even more confusing, the Raptors sent Gasol down to screen for Siakam in the middle of the floor. Since the Celtics are zoning, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart arranged to switch, where Smart stays above the 3-point arc to cut off Siakam, while Brown prevents Gasol from getting any deeper inside the paint. The issue, again, is that nobody is paying any attention to Anunoby, who crosses the court completely unimpeded.
What makes this play possible is that Lowry didn’t panic on the inbound. Boston successfully denied both Gasol and Siakam on the switch, and VanVleet wasn’t able to get to the corner which forced him to come up instead to receive the pass. That would have been the most obvious option and the cleanest pass, but it would have been nearly impossible for VanVleet to catch, turn, then shoot over a contest from the 6-foot-8 Tatum all within 0.5 seconds.
Instead, Lowry reads the play and spots Anunoby all alone. What makes it even better is that Brown is playing Gasol on the inside to deny the catch, which means he has a longer route to contest on the shot as he would need to first get around Gasol. No other Celtics defender is even in the picture, so it’s just on Lowry to make a good pass to the opposite side of the floor.
Of course, it was hardly an easy pass. Celtics coach Brad Stevens subbed in 7-foot-5 centre Tacko Fall specifically for this possession to pressure the pass. Lowry stands an even 6-foot, so any pass would have needed a fair bit of arc just to get past Fall. However, putting too much air on the ball risks giving Boston’s defenders more time to react, and again, with only 0.5 seconds to execute, there was simply no room for error.
Lowry not only puts it over Fall, but the pass guides Anunoby right to the spot for the 3. Brown actually gets a decent contest on the shot despite being late which speaks to his incredible athleticism, but Anunoby got his feet set and launched the shot well before the final buzzer sounded. In classic Anunoby fashion, he was muted in his response, only exuding cool before being mobbed by a sea of teammates.
“When I took that shot I expected to make it,” Anunoby said afterwards. “I don’t shoot trying to miss. Every shot I shoot I try to make it. So, I wasn’t going to act surprised because I wasn’t surprised.”
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