After OG Anunoby’s miracle three gave the Raptors hope on Thursday, Toronto continued their hot shooting from the second half of Game 3, knotting up the series at two games a piece behind a 17-for-44 performance from deep, on a night the Celtics only managed to convert 20% (7-35) of their tries from downtown.
It’s a cliché to say the NBA is a “make-or-miss league” but look, three-point variance is very real. It will happen in every game. In the modern NBA with teams taking more threes than ever, it’s inevitable that there will be games where teams go cold – with the most crucially glaring example being the Rockets missing twenty-seven straight in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals back in 2018.
Prior to Game 4, the Raptors were going through a brutal shooting streak of their own. Through the first three games, Toronto was shooting an abysmal 14-of-54 (25.9%) on wide open threes (classified as having the closest defender more than 6 feet away). Since there are no defenders near the shooter, a lot of the variance in wide-open threes is attributed to luck, and given that the Raptors shot above 41% on such attempts during the regular season, it was always likely that the basketball gods would shower some good fortune their way at some point.
Despite being outscored in the three-point battle by 30, the Celtics still had a legitimate chance late in this game. What really killed Boston on the night was allowing the Raptors to feast on secondary opportunities – outscoring the C’s 24-12 on second chance points. Toronto did so by scoring a whopping 17 points off their 8 offensive rebounds (that 2.25 PPP ranks in the 99th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), and adding 7 more points off team rebounds.
In his postgame interview, Kemba Walker harped on the Celtics’ energy levels. “I thought we just didn’t match those guys’ intensity,” Walker said. “We’ve just gotta be tougher. We’ve gotta want it more.”
A huge part of rebounding is hustling and wanting it more, and that lack of intensity really showed up in the Raptors’ advantage on second chance points. Allowing eight offensive rebounds on its own is not all that bad, but it was the fact that all lead to easy, open layups, or wide open threes. That was the real killer for Boston.
The good thing for the Celtics, though, is that these are all fixable mistakes. Take this particularly brutal possession at the end of the first half that serves as a microcosm for the game as whole. Up three with a 4-second differential between shot and game clock, the Celtics have a chance to go into the half with a two-possession lead despite shooting the ball terribly. Ojeleye does a great job to stay in front of Siakam on the isolation, and even doesn’t bite on Pascal’s up fake. The help from Tatum forces a tough pass out to VanVleet, and Smart rotates to contest the 3 as the shot-clock is winding down. Nice team defense up to this point.
As the ball is in the air, though, neither Robert Williams nor Kemba Walker really check their opponent. Both Walker and Williams have an arm on their men, but don’t take the time to properly box out. The result: Timelord swipes the ball out after Gasol gets his hands on it, but Siakam picks up the loose ball to find an open VanVleet who ties the game with a triple. Despite 24 seconds of good defense, the Celtics gave up three points, and all night, the Celtics put good possessions together defensively, but just failed to finish them off.
Another reason why that second VanVleet three was open was that Marcus Smart leaked out after contesting the original shot, looking for a transition opportunity. Finding that balance of when to leak out and when to stay and help rebound, was something the Celtics struggled with all game.
On this play here in the first quarter, VanVleet gets by Brown with a behind-the-back move before launching a pull-up three off a screen from Marc Gasol. After Brown contests the shot from behind, and Williams from in front, both decide to leak out – giving the Raptors a 4-3 advantage off the glass.
With only Grant Williams rotating inside to try and box out Marc Gasol, Tatum pinches in a little and gets caught as the rebound flies over his head to Siakam, who manages to tap it back as Toronto eventually recovered the loose ball with Timelord and Brown out of position – soon leading to an open FVV 3.
The other area where the Celtics are getting caught on the offensive glass comes on switches where Kemba is forced to guard a bigger player. Below, OG Anunoby knows that he has the smaller Walker switched onto him and while he doesn’t get the ball in the post as the shot clock winds down, OG drifts towards the basket looking for a rebound. With the ball in the air, he easily discards Walker and has the simplest of putbacks.
The same thing happened later in the game at an important time, with the Celtics down just 6 in the fourth. Ibaka does well to set a good screen on Walker, forcing Grant Williams to pick up Norman Powell, as Walker and Grant switch. As Powell puts up a tough layup, Walker gets no help from either Smart or Tatum, and is left stranded under the basket against Ibaka.
Rebounding is a team effort and, while the Celtics usually do a good job of “scramming” Walker out of difficult matchups in the post, it’s important that they recognize when he’s caught on a switch while going up for a rebound, and help him out there.
Simple regression to the mean will likely lead to a better Celtics performance shooting the ball, but it’s vital that they’re focus on the defensive glass is consistent in order to restrict the Raptors’ second chance opportunities in Game 5.