It’s been a series of lost opportunity for both the Celtics and Raptors. Most notably, Boston could have taken a commanding 3-0 lead, but Kyle Lowry’s iconic feed to OG Anunoby changed the complexion of the series. For Toronto, the Raptors could have ran a set play down three to close Game 2 and instead rushed a fast break and settled for an unsuccessful Fred VanVleet heave with a timeout in their pocket.
Regret may rest on both sides, but as the series shortens to a best of three, Toronto has shown their championship moxie and have all the momentum going into a pivotal Game 5. With the #1 overall seeded Bucks on the ropes and both Western Conference semis locked up at 1-1, the Larry O’Brien is up for grabs with no clear cut favorite marching to The Finals. If the Celtics don’t counter tonight, they’ll face a long offseason of what-if’s.
Brad Stevens spoke of several areas of improvement he would not specifically identify on Sunday. It’s fair to guess what they’ll target given an array of developing issues: big man rotations, shooting slumps, an elusive Kyle Lowry, turnovers, and most recently, rebounding.
The latter has become a key ingredient to the Raptors’ rejuvenation. The Celtics won the battle on the boards in the first three games, but a slew of offensive rebounds in Game 4 compounded Boston’s cold shooting.
Serge Ibaka scored twice on second chance points and Kyle Lowry added a three in the fourth quarter, where the Raptors have already averaged a +9 advantage in the last two games. Toronto scored 24 second chance points, largely due to the pressure they’re applying on the Celtics’ centers.
Robert Williams III, one of Boston’s keen matchup advantages in this series, became unplayable in the second half of Game 4 according to Stevens, who noted Ibaka’s activity above the arc. Ibaka hit all four of his three-point attempts, a consistently steady force in this series so far. Ibaka also drove Daniel Theis off the floor during the third and fourth quarters, leading to seven Grant Williams-at-the-5 minutes and more pressure on Boston’s collective rebounders (50% rebounding % in the 4th).
Lowry, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — the latter shooting 39.5% in the playoffs before Game 4 — fully arrived on Saturday six days after their no-shows in Game 1. Siakam finished the game 7-for-14 and drove Jaylen Brown (who shot an anemic 4-for-18) off the floor with a hook shot early in the third quarter. The Celtics had a healthy halftime lead in Game 3 and were tied after two in Game 4 before the Raptors closed shooting 51.2% from the field and 44.4% from three in the second halves.
The Celtics believed they beat themselves in Game 4, including Walker vowing to attempt more than nine shots. Still, Boston’s closing sets remain peculiar, a mix of Brown, Walker, and Tatum heaves as part of 20.7% three-point shooting in the last two second halves. Lowry and Siakam also avoided foul trouble in their last win, in turn drawing Boston into four second-half charges.
The Celtics are seemingly a few adjustments away from regaining control of this series, but there’s precious little time remaining. Boston is still second-guessing their rotations. There are offensive possessions that they seem to throw away as they anticipate which defense they’ll see Toronto thow at them. Stevens said he enjoyed the Celtics’ production against the zone, but it troubled him enough to try Enes Kanter in Game 3 (a -4 in four minutes) in a series he has otherwise witnessed from the bench. Toronto ran a consistent seven-man effort even through Game 3 foul trouble; the Celtics have seesawed between Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye based on matchups.
The Raptors entered this season as unlikely back-to-back champions, but they won 57 games and scorched the competition in the bubble. After tying up the series with the Celtics, they’re looking for more.
“There seemed to be some life in the second half,” Nick Nurse said after Game 3. “Pascal had a good half, Norm stuck a couple threes, Kyle stuck a couple threes. Pascal had some in-and-out ... Freddie made some big shots ... they all got to chip in some little things that we’re used to and we haven’t gotten any of that.”
After clinching a 2-0 lead and nearly a 3-0 stranglehold, it’s possible the Celtics got overconfident. After taking the regular season series 3-1 that included two blowouts on Christmas Day and during the seeding games, Boston has looked gutted over the last 48 minutes and half a second.
But more than one big shot tilted this series back in Toronto’s direction. This is playoff basketball. They’ve adjusted. They’re blowing up Tatum pick-and-roll attempts. They’re collapsing on Walker’s drives. They’re forcing Smart and Brown to take shots (combining for 6-for-26 in Game 4). Gordon Hayward remains far from returning and even if he could, you’d have to think that Nick Nurse would have an answer for that, too.
The champion Raptors are back doing the little things. A simmering reemergence of each of their key players over three games has now pushed the Celtics to their biggest game since 2018’s Game 7 against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.