On the eve of the 50th anniversary of "Havlicek stole the ball," John Havlicek was honored for the legendary memory between the first and second quarters in an Atlantic Division battle between a pair of Eastern Conference playoff squads tonight. Hondo was in the building for a heck of a game, as the Raptors and Celtics came in looking to improve their positioning for the third and seventh seeds in the postseason.
The Celtics didn't necessarily begin tonight's game the way Brad Stevens would have liked. After a 12-9 start, Boston's offense suffered a stagnant stretch where the men in green and white were unable to operate with any kind of rhythm and they closed the quarter poorly as a result. Toronto capped off the opening frame on a 12-3 run throughout the final four minutes, while Boston was shooting under 40% in desperate need of a spark.
Avery Bradley answered the call, burying jumper after jumper on his way to a 14-point quarter, when the Celtics needed a hot hand the most. Toronto got hot in the middle part of the second quarter, as well, shooting the lights out for a stretch as they zipped the ball around beautifully and made Boston's defense look a step slow. With two minutes remaining in the first half, the Raptors had built a lead as large as 15, before a couple Avery Bradley jumpers and a flush from Marcus Smart put a stamp on a 9-3 min-run that put the Raptors up 53-46 at intermission.
Coming out of the locker room, Boston took the floor with a much more physical mindset and elevated level of defensive tenacity. Marcus Smart didn't necessarily fill up the stat sheet tonight, but you can thank the rookie bulldog guard for setting the tone in the third quarter and completely changing the momentum of the game with his energy and ball pressure.
As the Celtics locked down and finally started to get some shots to fall, Toronto went through a five-minute drought without a single field goal. For a team that couldn't make their presence felt in the first half, Boston responded beautifully with a game-changing 18-5 run that got them back into the ballgame and put them on top on the scoreboard. Boston put together a 27-17 third quarter advantage, building a three-point lead heading into the final frame.
The Raptors are far from a soft bunch and they're a heck of a team, so you knew the fourth quarter was going to be a dogfight between two hungry teams. What we didn't know was how thrilling of a finish we were about to witness, as the division rivals went at each others necks in back-and-forth fashion as they completed spectacular clutch play after spectacular clutch play.
From Evan Turner's ATO baseline jumper to Kyle Lowry's tough drives to the rim, Tyler Zeller's right-place-at-the-right-time layup set up a remarkable last-second finish. With 3.1 seconds left on the clock, the Celtics had the ball on the baseline and Brad Stevens worked some more magic to set someone up to be a hero.
Fading to the sideline, Jae Crowder rose to the challenge and came off of a staggered screen to knock down a long fall-away jumper with 0.8 second left, sinking the Raptors and locking up the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference while Toronto's hopes of rising to third place are now dead.
That's how you finish off your regular season home finale!
Not only does tonight's victory gift the Celtics the Eastern Conference's seventh seed, it sets the table for what to expect when the Celtics take the floor in the first round as they'll match up with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A win is a win and we have nothing to complain about as fans in terms of how this game concluded, but the Celtics didn't necessarily play their best basketball despite coming out on top. Boston shot just 38.4% from the floor, including an ugly 6-27 clip from beyond the arc and often failed to make the most of the fact that they took 19 more shots than Toronto did tonight.
However, the Celtics embraced the grit and grind in the second half and once they buckled down, they looked like a completely different team in comparison to the first 24 minutes. Brad Stevens' troops gobbled up 50 rebounds and scored 21 points off of 20 forced turnovers, while Marcus Smart had a lot to do with holding Kyle Lowry to 6-20 shooting.
Outside of Bradley's 14-point second quarter surge, no individual rose above the rest of the pack and lead the way individually. The Celtics, as a whole, struggled to shoot the rock efficiently all night long. On the bright side, perhaps even more importantly, the Celtics stuck their chest out against a tough opponent and once again made big plays in key moments to respond in resilient form.
Games like this contribute to a team's growth and if you want to take anything from tonight's contest, it's that coach Stevens and the gang provided us with another example of how far they've come in terms of poise and late-game execution. They fight back, they grind, they play hard and they're executing down the stretch of games. That's exactly what I wanted to see - one last test before the playoffs - and they dug themselves out of a hole and found a way to win.
Brad Stevens noted that the Celtics would sit some key players for tomorrow night's regular season finale in Milwaukee, and you can expect Avery Bradley to be in that group as he suffered a left quad contusion this evening. Let's hope AB gets treatment and is good to go for Game 1.
Bring on the Cavs!