1. For a moment, it was elation. Pure, unadulterated elation. Kemba Walker, who was dominant with 29 points and again came through in the clutch. This time, instead of a big shot, Walker dropped the last of his three dimes to Daniel Theis. Theis powered it through the hoop to put Boston up by two points with 0.5 seconds to play:
Walker read the double from Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet and drove it. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum all stayed spaced around the arc, which kept their defenders home. And Theis stayed in the dunker spot for the big finish.
For the briefest period of time, the Celtics were up 3-0 and well on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
2. Then, devastation.
We’re going to break down everything that happened in this final play, and for 0.5 seconds, it was a lot.
Boston is in a four-man zone. Brad Stevens goes to zone a ton in low-time, late-clock situations. We see it at end-of-clock, end-of-quarter and end-of-game situations. Usually it works. This time, it clearly didn’t. Here’s why:
Marcus Smart has the top of the key to the opposite wing. Daniel Theis has the free throw line and down. Jayson Tatum has the near-side corner, plus the strong-side block. Jaylen Brown has the opposite corner, plus the opposite block. Tacko Fall’s job is to make sure Kyle Lowry can’t inbound easily and can’t pass it to the near-side wing.
It’s a beautiful play design from Toronto. OG Anunoby will never get the ball in the near-side corner, so he relocates to the opposite corner as soon as the play starts. Fred VanVleet runs a diagonal cut to the near-side wing, before getting cut off. Marc Gasol does down to screen for Pascal Siakam, who comes from the opposite block up to the top of the key.
Only Smart see’s what is happening, because he’s the only Celtic who can see the entire floor. You can see him pointing it all out, even as he picks up Siakam. As VanVleet cuts through, Tatum lifts to him and Theis shades that way. Brown comes up to Gasol with Siakam. This is right as Lowry released the pass to Anunoby:
While every single Celtic took ownership for the breakdown on this play, it’s really on Brown and Theis. Theis never should have followed VanVleet. He ends up guarding air. That caused Brown to lift to Gasol. Gasol got just enough of Brown with a screen to keep him from recovering to Anunoby.
Fall did his job. This was a tough pass from Lowry.
Smart did his job. He pointed everything out and swallowed up Siakam (who Toronto said the play was designed for.
Tatum had his zone covered. VanVleet is running away from the hoop as the pass is let go.
If Theis and Brown stay home, the Celtics are probably up 3-0.
3. It’s that “probably” that will eat at Celtics fans until Game 4 tips off. It was certainly eating at Brad Stevens, who seemed as dejected as we’ve ever seen him following the loss, and Jaylen Brown, who dropped three F-bombs, in the first time any of us have heard him swear in front of the microphones.
But Stevens and Brown, as well as Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, all emphasized the same thing: It’s over. You can’t change the result. You learn from it and move on to Game 4.
4. The Takeaways often focus on the positives, sometimes to criticism. We take this approach because around Boston sports teams, there’s plenty of places to go to find negative coverage. Turn on sports radio today and they’re likely killing the Celtics (while also lamenting the poor Red Sox season and wondering why the Patriots can’t find a wide receiver).
Are there things to criticize? Absolutely. Boston seems woefully prepared to play against the various zone defense looks Toronto is throwing at them. And they see zone a lot. The Raptors are exploiting them in those moments.
Stevens went to Enes Kanter in this game, after previously saying it might not be the series for Kanter to play. Boston was up 64-60 when Kanter came in and tied at 74 when he exited. It wasn’t all Kanter’s fault, as he did some good things, but it was a curious decision.
Boston continues to be really sloppy with the ball. They had 15 turnovers, which was the fewest of the series so far, but still too many.
All game long, they struggled to keep Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in front of them in Game 3, after doing a great job in Games 1 and 2.
But, it’s far from doom and gloom, as it was painted last night and some places this morning.
The reality for the Celtics is, they are still up 2-1 on the defending champs. Toronto still has to win three-of-four to beat Boston. If the Celtics bounce back and win Game 4, they have a commanding 3-1 series lead. Boston still controls the series.
Is it disappointing that they blew coverage on the final play? Sure is. But it was a great pass by Kyle Lowry over the tallest player in the NBA. And OG Anunoby buried the clutches of shots possible.
Before the Celtics were a regular playoff team, Brad Stevens used to say “Process over results” a lot. It was about finding the good, even when things were really bad. That mentality allowed Boston to find things that work, like going zone defense against the final shot. More often than not, it will work. This time it didn’t.
The NBA Playoffs are unrelenting, unforgiving and forgiving, all at the same time. The next game is always right around the corner. Losses are magnified because they all mean so much more, But, you get the opportunity to bounce right back almost immediately. It’s up to the teams how they respond.
Like the Celtics said, “You can’t change it. We move on to Game 4”.
Game 4 is Saturday at 6:30 PM ET on TNT.