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The Celtics need to beat the Raptors in crunch time

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Outside a self-sabotaging Raptors finish in Game 2, the Celtics have only won the blowouts in this series. Tonight they’ll need an elite effort in the clutch to close out the champs.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Six Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Toronto Raptors, the “heart of a champion” was absent in Game 2. After Kemba Walker hit a step back shot over Serge Ibaka to take a 3-point lead with 41 seconds left, Marcus Smart stripped Pascal Siakam on a drive that would later send Nick Nurse into a post-game tirade. When the Raptors received a second chance following one of this series’ lengthier replays, Siakam subsequently stepped out of bounds without a shot to tie the game.

Technically, the Celtics closed a tight game to take a 2-0 lead ten days ago. But it also came with significant help from the Raptors. Toronto decided not to call timeout down three and ran into an aimless Fred VanVleet heave at the buzzer. Earlier in the fourth quarter, OG Anunoby fouled two three-point shooters. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of defending champions.

Boston took advantage of those miscues, but with the opportunity to comfortably seal the game, they ran one of their worst sets all night. Jaylen Brown took a long fadeaway three with seven seconds left leading by three. Earlier, he had heaved another three ahead by four after Walker lost the ball in the lane. Tatum picked up an offensive foul and technical, leaving the Celtics scoreless in three of their final four possessions in Game 2.

Anunoby bounced back to drill the second biggest corner three in Raptors history in Game 3. Prior to that series-altering shot, the Celtics went on a 1-for-5 shooting swoon, before Walker passed behind his back to Daniel Theis for a go-ahead dunk.

Conversely, the Raptors scored on four of their final five possessions, after trailing 99-95. The Celtics launched ridiculous shots like this with 2:45 remaining and a chance to put away the game, before blowing their final defensive stand with half a second left on the clock ahead by two.

Boston’s inability to close out games has mushroomed into an inability to close out the series and now, they find themselves in a do-or-die Game 7 tonight. To be clear, this hasn’t exactly been a display of crunch time dominance by the Raptors. In fact, the Celtics are outscoring the Raptors (24-23), generating more free throws (6.5-6.3), with better shooting splits, and rebounding (11.7-9.2) in the fourth quarter on a per-game basis in this series.

However, Toronto has been timelier or — as in Game 6 — stalled the Celtics to a stalemate in closing minutes. Boston and Toronto shot 0-for-6 collectively after the Daniel Theis dunks that tied the game on Wednesday night, and Tatum botched the seventh possession — thanks in part to Nick Nurse.

These mistakes are magnified with the game (and series) on the line. To Boston’s credit, the Celtics blew the Raptors out wire-to-wire in two games and Toronto doesn’t appear capable of doing the same. Toronto opened 36% from the field in the first quarter, including a playoff low 11-point opener in Game 5, compared to Boston’s 46%.

But when the games have tightened, Toronto has had the upper hand. Offensive rebounds, mixed looks on defense, and Lowry’s shot making have driven their comeback rather than individual standouts. Through six games, Nurse contends they’ve seen nothing close to Siakam’s normal production, but as a team, they’ve been better than Boston. Under two minutes with the game at within five points, the Raptors have forced six turnovers to the Celtics’ one over eleven total minutes. They’re a whopping +32.1 net rating, totaling a +10 in points that’s lead to a 3-1 record in close games and a tied series.

Toronto’s small ball unit with Siakam at center - something Nurse thought about using for several games - worked to both free Siakam on the wings, but also generate instant offense from Norman Powell. They nearly squandered the game by isolating Powell to end overtime, otherwise a switchable Raptors unit stuck with the Celtics wings defensively and forced critical overtime mistakes.

“I think the switching eats a lot of their clock,” Powell said. “Eating the clock up and trying to slow the game down for them, to where they’re late in the clock and trying to figure it out. I thought that’s the good defensive strategy we did.”

All things considered, the Celtics did improve on Friday, enough to feel like they should have won if granted a foul on Walker’s last-second attack. Boston held Toronto scoreless for the final 4:24 of the fourth quarter and hit Theis twice for easy buckets and then four more in the overtime periods on back line cuts against a smaller Toronto lineup. They’ve been able to adjust on the fly and that’s a good sign heading into a final game where both coaches have presumably emptied their bag of tricks.

Lowry admitted stepping back further on the in-bounds to vault his pivotal pass over Tacko Fall to win Game 3. Since then, the Raptors have found advantages and pounced on them. They’ve gone small. They’ve used an array of defense to confuse the younger Celtics. Nurse lobbied the referees after Game 2 and the NBA stunningly affirmed his sideline positioning in Game 6.

Boston’s inability to close out games has mushroomed into an inability to close out the series and now they find themselves in a do-or-die Game 7 tonight. If the Celtics don’t win tonight, it’s going to be one of the longest, hardest offseasons since losing the Finals ten years ago, especially with uncertainty over when or if the next season will begin.