The Celtics were 0.5 seconds from having command of this playoff series against the Raptors. They were 0.5 seconds from being able to start dreaming big.
They led by 2 points, and they just needed to stop Toronto from scoring. Coach Brad Stevens put 7-foot-5-inch center Tacko Fall in to guard Kyle Lowry’s sideline inbounds pass. On the bench, Kemba Walker was so nervous that something bad might happen that he could not watch.
The Celtics were in a zone defense, pointing and calling out switches, but no one noticed Raptors forward OG Anunoby sauntering along the baseline and planting himself in the far left corner. Lowry fired a perfect inbounds pass, and by the time Jaylen Brown recovered and contested the shot, it was too late, as the 3-pointer splashed through the net and sent the Raptors to an improbable 104-103 win in Orlando that pulled them within 2-1 in this series.
“We just needed one stop to win the [expletive] game,” Brown said, “and we end up losing.”
Walker had 29 points to lead the Celtics, and Lowry had 31 to lead the Raptors.
The Celtics led by 10 at halftime, but a Marc Gasol layup with 5:57 left gave the Raptors a 95-91 lead. The Celtics remained poised as they surged ahead with an 8-0 run.
And after Toronto’s Fred VanVleet tied the score at 101 with a layup with 21.1 seconds left, Walker danced and shimmied at the other end, eventually evading a double-team and finding Daniel Theis for an easy dunk with 0.5 seconds left. But that wild play will just go down as a footnote, because an even wilder one followed.
Observations from the game:
▪ Well, let’s start with that final play. The Celtics came out in a zone defense, ideally to leave them less susceptible to a series of screens. It’s their usual approach in these situations, and it generally works out well.
Jayson Tatum started on Anunoby, the lowest threat on the court. Anunoby casually jogged along the baseline to the far corner before the ball was inbounded, and Tatum appeared to point to let Jaylen Brown know so he could switch onto him. But Brown had his back to them as he guarded Pascal Siakam in the paint, and it did not look like Tatum yelled anything to him. The Celtics’ focus was on Van Vleet, the most dangerous option in this situation.
“[Smart] passed Fred VanVleet off to me,” Tatum said. “So OG cut. I was passing to the next guy. We just didn’t communicate. Everybody didn’t hear it. It’s not on one person.”
When Gasol set a screen for VanVleet, Marcus Smart pointed for a switch. Theis and Tatum both shaded toward VanVleet, smothering that option, but also leaving Boston vulnerable elsewhere.
Gasol then set a screen for Pascal Siakam, who ran toward the top of the key. Brown switched onto Gasol, and Smart switched onto Siakam. And as all this was transpiring, before the ball was even inbounded, Anunoby stood alone in the far left corner.
Still, it was hardly a simple option. Lowry fired a perfect crosscourt inbounds pass, over the arms of Fall, and Brown was still in the paint when the pass was released. He was able to recover and contest the shot, but it was too late.
“It was just a miscommunication,” Brown said. “That’s really all what happened. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to be better as a unit. Regardless of what [defense] we were 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 plays before.”
There’s no question that it was a defensive lapse. But it was not like the Celtics let a player leak to the hoop for a layup. The Raptors’ execution needed to be perfect, and it was.
▪ The wild finish wiped away what would have been a magical ending for the Celtics. The score was tied at 101 with about five seconds left when Walker juked and shimmied near the top of the key and looked for a winning shot. The Celtics were hoping to pull the lumbering Gasol onto Walker, and when Gasol switched out to the perimeter onto Smart, it led Gasol to double-team Walker, who had little trouble blowing past him.
The Raptors were in a zone defense, and the 6-1 Lowry was manning the middle. He moved toward Walker once he reached the paint, and Walker fed Theis with a perfect bounce pass for a dunk.
“Just wanted to bring Gasol up to Kemba,” Stevens said. “I thought Kemba did a nice play. Smart did a good job reading the switch when they switched onto Theis, so then Smart came up. Now you have two guys on Kemba and he’s going to find the open guy. He did a good job.”
From the 29 points to that perfect pass to drawing a pair of big charges, Walker had an excellent all-around game.
▪ Tatum has been masterful in these playoffs, but he struggled a bit Thursday, going just 5 for 18 overall, 1 for 4 on 3-pointers, and 4 for 6 from the foul line.
“I’ve got to find my spots,” he said. “A lot of times they’re blitzing, diving, collapsing, so finding open guys. I missed a lot of shots I feel like I should have made. That’s on me. But again, it’s just one game. Be ready next game.”
▪ Scoring aside, Tatum doesn’t get enough credit for his passing. On one play late in the first quarter, he drove along the right side and appeared to have his view to the backcourt completely blocked by the cluster of players in front of him. But he knew Brad Wanamaker was lurking at the far arc anyway, and he somehow zipped a perfect crosscourt pass to him. Wanamaker completed the play with a basket, which makes all passes look better.
▪ The Raptors had some success with a matchup zone defense, particularly as they charged back from a 10-point deficit in the third quarter. The Celtics actually got decent shots against it, but there was a sense that it disrupted their rhythm. Stevens inserted Enes Kanter as a bit of a zone buster in the paint, and he had a solid offensive stretch, with a jump-hook and a putback before drawing a pair of fouls on rebounds. He is a liability on the defensive end, though, which is why he had not played in this matchup. And the Raptors attacked him with success in the pick-and-roll.
“They’re switching up defenses, obviously,” Stevens said. “They have long, athletic guys that can do it. They have smart guys. The way they play man, they’re used to rotating and scrambling and all that stuff, so I thought we attacked it better as the game went on. But they mixed it up. They had some triangle, they played some zone, they’ve got the guard in the middle of the zone. They played obviously a lot of man, mixed up their matchups. It’s one of those games, like the previous two, where you have to be ready to attack different things at different times.”