1. With 0.5 seconds left in Game 3, it looked like the Boston Celtics would cruise to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Toronto Raptors had other plans. They showed why champions have to be beaten. As many noted: Torches aren’t passed in the NBA. You have to take them.
Jayson Tatum said postgame: “It took everything. When you’re trying to achieve something special like winning a championship, you’re gonna have to go through some stuff. I think we responded.”
While it wasn’t the easy path, the road less taken often makes all the difference. The lessons learned in this series will carry over to the next one for Boston. The Celtics can now say they are well and truly battle-tested.
2. Speaking of Tatum, he showed up big time in the last two games vs the Raptors. In Game 6, he just missed a triple-double with a line of 29 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists. In Game 7, he put up 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Here, Tatum shows just how much his court-awareness has improved. He knows Jaylen Brown is leaking out and throws him the two-handed touchdown pass:
Tatum has also improved his off-the-dribble passing greatly. On this play, he finds Brown in the corner. This pass isn’t as easy at Tatum made it look:
3. As good as his passing is, Tatum still makes his case for superstar status as a scorer. Again, his understanding of situations is now through the roof. In a close game, every possession matters. Tatum drills a pull-up quickly here looking for the 2-for-1:
This layup was actually the Celtics last basket of the game, and it game with 5:21 to play. More on that later. For now, focus on Tatum blowing by fellow All-Star Pascal Siakam for the tough finish:
4. As great as he was, Tatum was far from the only reason Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Marcus Smart stepped up in the last two games as well. He had a triple-double in Game 6 and in Game 7, Smart almost willed the Celtics to victory.
The play-by-play shows this as “Marcus Smart layup – 41 points”. What this play really was is Smart wanting the ball more, beating two Raptors to it and then outracing them for the layup:
If the Celtics needed a big basket, Smart delivered it. This drive for the and-1 came when Boston really needed a hoop:
5. Brad Stevens was asked pregame (by me) if he thought Toronto had wrinkles Boston hadn’t seen or if he had anything new for the Raptors. His answer was “Yep.”
One of Stevens wrinkles was an early call for Robert Williams. Williams finally got the chance to go against Marc Gasol some and his energy was great, as always. Marcus Smart always seems to try to get the big man involved early:
If you’re going to play as a big for Boston, you better be able to screen. Williams is figuring that part of the game out:
Williams’ ridiculous athleticism means he is always going to have this sort of play in his bag:
But what will really keep him on the floor is defense like this, especially on switches. Williams swallows up Pascal Siakam here. The best part? He doesn’t jump when Siakam throws a fake. Williams moves his feet and then gives a great contest:
6. The Celtics forced 18 turnovers from Toronto. Many of them were live-ball turnovers. This allowed Boston to turn the Raptors favorite way of scoring against them. The Celtics scored 31 points off turnovers and outscored the Toronto 23-10 in fastbreak points. That’s beating them at their own game.
7. With Jayson Tatum doing all the flashy stuff and Marcus Smart making winning plays, it would be easy to overlook how good Jaylen Brown was. He had 21 points and made some big buckets of his own. This catch and right into the turnaround is a pretty shot for Brown against a bigger defender:
And Tatum wasn’t the only one find Brown with a TD pass. Kemba Walker dimes him up here:
Brown went down in a heap after that play, helped with a little push from Pascal Siakam. He said in the moment it hurt, but then adrenaline took over. Brown said postgame that he could feel it, but felt like he’d be fine.
8. Speaking of Kemba Walker…he really struggled to get going against Toronto’s box-and-1 defense. But the Celtics never gave up on him. Just his presence out there was attracting attention and opening things up for his teammates. And when it was winning time, Walker made plays. Brad Stevens ran the first play of the fourth quarter for him:
Later in the final period, the play starts with Jaylen Brown making a nice kickout to Walker. Walker hits his pull-up for the and-1. Look at how fired up he is at the end of the play:
Walker knows he has to play better if Boston is to continue to advance in the playoffs. After the game, he repeatedly mentioned how special his teammates are and how they lifted him up and never stopped believing in him. In Walker, the Celtics have a true leader.
9. The end of the game featured enough big plays that they could be their own set of Takeaways. At the end of Game 6, Norman Powell got a run-out and got the basket and the foul on Marcus Smart. Not this time:
This was Marcus Smart being at the pinnacle of his Marcus Smartness. Also, note that Powell was the only Raptor to sprint the floor. Boston’s younger legs may have simply had more left late in the game.
The above play was one Brad Stevens called out as the biggest in the game. The other one was this crash to the glass by Jayson Tatum:
Different plays, but both signifying the hustle and effort it takes to beat a champion.
Lastly, Grant Williams didn’t play until there was 7:13 left in the fourth quarter. Daniel Theis was in foul trouble and Robert Williams doesn’t match up well when the Raptors go super-small. That put Grant Williams in the game, completely cold.
Williams got beat off the bounce once, but other than that he delivered. When Theis came back in with 1:32 left, then immediately fouled out, Grant Williams got the call to close it out. And he did so with great defense on Fred VanVleet on the game’s final meaningful shot:
There is no block recorded in the box score, but Williams absolutely got a piece of that shot. The rookie came through when Boston needed him most.
10. Now, it’s on to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics have a lot to clean up. The good news is that they have three days to rest and prepare for the Heat. Two immediate things stand out as concerns for Boston. First, is beating zone defenses. No team in the NBA plays more zone than Miami does. The Celtics have to be ready for that.
The other primary issue is Boston’s late-game offense. Too often against Toronto, it devolved into a series of sloppy isolation plays. A lot of that is credited to the Raptors defense, but the Celtics have to be better about ball and player movement late in games.
On the plus side, Brad Stevens said he expects Gordon Hayward will play at some point in that series. And Boston gets some much-needed days to rest and heal up from this seven-game battle.
We’ll have all your coverage of the Eastern Conference Finals right here on CelticsBlog. Boston and Miami will kick things off on Tuesday, September 15 for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.