ORLANDO — It’s really OK to be upset right now. The Celtics were so close, achingly close to taking complete control of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the defending champion Toronto Raptors.
And then OG Anunoby crept down the baseline, Marcus Smart pointed for Jaylen Brown to cover him, but with the pumped-in crowd noise and the intensity of the moment, Brown didn’t hear him. So, he was a half-step too late in closing out on Anunoby as he gathered an absurdly difficult crosscourt pass from Kyle Lowry.
What was even more demoralizing about the loss was the Celtics again proved they were the better team throughout the game. They led most of the way and thought they delivered the knockout blow when Kemba Walker found Daniel Theis for a dunk with 0.5 seconds left.
Those 0.5 seconds will be reviewed countless times by Celtics players over the next 40-plus hours. Why did they play zone on the final play? Who let Anunoby get so open? How did Lowry throw a pass over 7-foot-5-inch Tacko Fall, inserted on that final play to guard the inbounds pass?
Right now, there’s regret and anger. It’s the Celtics’ first playoff loss. They led by 10 at halftime and by 4 points with two minutes left. Despite 9-for-33 shooting from Jayson Tatum and Smart, the Celtics were one step, one defensive execution from winning.
The playoffs can be a cold, dark place, especially during a pandemic, when Anunoby’s 3-pointer will be replayed repeatedly on television and social media.
The understandable emotion is anger. You can’t give away playoff games, especially not to the defending champs, who looked defeated at times late in the fourth quarter. They know they are fighting a beast that’s bigger and better, but they will ride hope as the series is now extended.
“We’ve just got to be better as a unit,” Brown said. “Regardless of what [defense] we was in, we know we had to guard the 3-point line. So that was just a [expletive] disgrace at the end of the game. That was just terrible. No way we should have lost that game. I take responsibility for that, not just that play but a lot of the playoffs before.
“It’s the NBA playoffs. Either you let them gain momentum or you come back and get ready to play the next game.”
Just when it appeared Brown was ready to move forward, that outrage returned again, and it was understandable.
“We just needed one stop to win the [expletive] game and we end up losing,” Brown said. “But you move on. We’ve got to be ready for Game 4.”
And as much as Brown tried to move on, again he couldn’t. And again, it’s OK.
“They made a remarkable play at the end of the game,” he said. “It was just a miscommunication, the coverage that we was in. That’s all that really is. He snuck along the baseline and we’ve just got to communicate better. That can’t happen. It’s just me being four years in, I’ve got to be better. Can’t give up a three at the end of the game. It’s a [expletive] disgrace. It’s terrible. No excuse for it at all. It was ridiculous. Can’t take your foot off the gas at all, gotta be ready to play Game 4.”
The Celtics should have been furious. They wasted an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series and start looking forward to the Eastern Conference finals. And with nothing much to do here in the NBA bubble other than practice, FaceTime, and scroll your social media accounts, the Celtics will be constantly reminded of their blunder.
But they cannot allow that to affect them on Saturday. It has to serve as motivation.
“We’re still up, 2-1,” Walker said. “For me personally, I don’t have social media. I don’t watch ESPN, so I’m not going to see that stuff. So I really couldn’t care less. It’s basketball. We messed up. We have to adjust. These guys are the defending champs. We knew they ain’t gonna quit. It’s a tough bunch over there. We have to learn from our mistakes and be ready.
“I don’t think we need to put our heads down for anything. We fought hard.”
The focus will eventually have to shift to positivity, Game 4, and the fact the Celtics are still up, 2-1. It required a combined 56 points from Lowry and Fred VanVleet, a below-average game from Tatum, and a miracle shot for the Raptors to beat the Celtics.
But playoff series are emotional roller coasters. The last team that wins is the best team, and the Raptors are going to hear Friday and early Saturday about their never-say-die grit and refusal to succumb easily. The Celtics, especially Brown, will hear about leaving Anunoby open for that winning three.
The Celtics have to be mentally strong enough to move on or this will gnaw at them on Saturday and suddenly the series will be tied. The Celtics have come too far to relent now. So, it’s up to them to diffuse their anger, concentrate on better overall execution for Game 4, and come out like the better team they have proven to be.