LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Any other year, the Toronto Raptors would have travelled to the unfriendly confines of Brooklyn's Barclays Center for Friday's Game 3.
But there's no such thing as NBA road games in the COVID-19 era. And so when the Raptors took a 3-0 playoff series lead for the first time in history with a 117-92 victory over Brooklyn, there were no Nets fans to silence except the 300 virtual Brooklyn supporters on the giant video screens.
Pascal Siakam had 26 points and eight rebounds to top Toronto, and in the moments after the game, the Raptors spoke about the peculiarity of these playoffs in the Walt Disney World bubble.
"Being in this environment, and trying to get used to everything that's happening, and making this kind of like home, it's been complicated," Siakam said. "For us, it's getting accustomed to it, just continuing to treat it like every single day . . . it doesn't feel like it's a home game or away game. The colours change in the arena, but that's about it. It's just focusing on the game, and the game-plan, just coming out and executing, and doing what we want to do."
The defending NBA champions can end the first-round series with a victory Sunday.
Fred VanVleet had 22 points, including a 52-foot buzzer-beater to end the first half — reminiscent of the practice shots from halfcourt Siakam said the guard takes before every game. He shot 6-for-10 from three-point range.
VanVleet, fondly known as "Steady Freddy," has lived up to his nickname, with 76 points and 27 three-pointers through three games.
VanVleet was asked whether he makes a mental note when he's on a hot streak. The reporter then apologized for potentially ending said streak.
"Thanks for your apology," VanVleet laughed. "Look, I've said it for four years now and when I'm not shooting well it sounds like cliche garbage, and when I am it sounds like what I should be saying, but it's the same confidence that I always have, and the ball is just going in for me right now, so just keep trying to find my spots and keep improving.
"I'm working my butt off, I'm working in between games, and practice . . . just keep continuing to work on my offensive game and find my spots and my teammates are doing a great job of finding me."
Siakam said the 26-year-old guard isn't just a lethal shooter, he's also a "big-time leader."
Coming out of the halftime huddle, Siakam said VanVleet grabbed his teammates together quickly.
"He said, 'Hey, they are coming out fast and hard and we've got to come out faster. Get ready to run with these guys because they are coming out . . .," Siakam said. "He's coaching that part of the game a little bit. He wants to compete and he wants to keep everybody sharp. The guy is a big-time winner, man."
Serge Ibaka had 20 points and 13 rebounds off the bench and Kyle Lowry added 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Tyler Johnson scored 23 points to lead the Nets, who were playing without Joe Harris — he left the NBA bubble after Game 2 for personal reasons. Caris LeVert added 15 points.
Two days after they clawed out an ugly 104-99 win in Game 2, the Raptors never trailed. Toronto led by as many as 17 points in the first half and took a 84-68 lead into the fourth quarter.
Ibaka slashed to the hoop for a dunk early in the fourth that stretched the difference to 18 points. Lowry pounced on a bad pass on Brooklyn's next possession, and Terence Davis finished with a jumper for a 20-point lead.
A prowling Lowry then grabbed another steal and found OG Anunoby running downcourt unchallenged for a reverse dunk. The Raptors went up by 23 and it was all but over.
Coach Nick Nurse went to his bench soon after. Sharp-shooter Matt Thomas had a pull-up jumper with 2:20 left to put Toronto up by 30.
"I like the intensity we're playing with, I think we're taking most possessions seriously, right?" Nurse said, summing up the first three games. "Not really paying attention to the score, we're playing defence with some intensity and trying to do the coverages and execute the game plan. I thought offensively tonight we made really good choices."
The Nets were technically the home team Friday, and Nurse said he did notice the piped-in fan noise.
"There were a couple of times where I remember commenting to Nate (assistant coach Bjorkgren), 'The crowd noise is super loud tonight,' and he said, 'What?' It seemed a little bit louder than normal."
But otherwise, he said. the game felt like bubble basketball's version of "Groundhog Day."
"I think it feels a whole lot different," Nurse said comparing the bubble to being on the road. "It feels the same as Game 1 and 2 exactly. . . I don't want to totally discount their home-game setup and their crowd and their fans etc., on the virtual, but I think it feels really similar to just going in and playing like the last two games were for us right now."
Marc Gasol, who has struggled on the offensive end in this series, hit a three-pointer early in the game that gave Toronto an 11-point lead. The Raptors led 24-17 to start the second.
"I think they really came out with force and tried to send a message early," said Nets coach Jacque Vaughn. "I liked the way our guys continued to rally and get back in the ball game."
Ibaka finally got hot and his shot from distance midway through the second quarter stretched Toronto's lead to 16. The Raptors would go up by 17 before LeVert hit a three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left in the half. Not to be outdone, VanVleet chucked up his shot from the logo and the Raptors took a 57-42 lead into the halftime break.
Siakam led the way with 14 points in the third, and his driving floater put the Raptors up by 17.
The Raptors routed Brooklyn 134-110 in Game 1.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers are the only remaining teams in NBA history who've never had a 3-0 series lead.
This report By The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 21, 2020.
The Canadian Press