Two nights ago, the Celtics were 0.5 seconds away from all but finishing off the Raptors in these conference semifinals. Then OG Anunoby hit a miracle 3-pointer, and the Raptors, a team with championship mettle that the Celtics are hoping to one day possess, were revived.
On Saturday night, Toronto played its most complete game of this series and snagged a gritty 100-93 win to tie this best-of-seven matchup, 2-2.
This series, that briefly looked like it could be headed toward an unlikely sweep, has been recalibrated. And there is no question that for now, the momentum is on the side of the defending NBA champions.
Toronto hit 17 of 44 3-pointers Saturday while Boston connected on just 7 of 35. Kyle Lowry had 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists for Toronto. Jayson Tatum led Boston with 24 points.
The Celtics trailed, 98-90, when Daniel Theis missed a pair of free throws with one minute left, which should have ended it. But Marcus Smart battled to keep the offensive rebound alive and it ended up in the hands of Tatum, who converted a 3-point play to pull Boston within 5.
Fred VanVleet then missed a 3-pointer, giving Boston a chance, but Tatum was whistled for an offensive foul when he rushed upcourt on a fast break.
Observations from the game:
▪ Kemba Walker said the Celtics did not match the Raptors’ intensity. Tatum said the Raptors played harder than Boston. There will be nights when shots do not go in, but these admissions should be a concern for the Celtics. With the Bucks on the brink of elimination, the Lakers already down, 1-0, and this series still anyone’s to seize, the Celtics could have a tremendous opportunity. But there should not be another game in these playoffs in which the players acknowledge the other team’s effort exceeded theirs.
“Those guys just out-toughed us and got loose balls, got offensive rebounds, things that we weren’t doing,” Walker said. “That’s really it. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be tougher. We’ve got to want it more.”
▪ The Raptors held a 24-12 edge in second-chance points. But Toronto grabbed offensive rebounds on just 8 of its 52 missed shots, an offensive rebound rate (15.3 percent) that was far below the regular-season average (25.6). The issue for the Celtics was regrouping on defense after these slip-ups. The Raptors shot 90 percent on second-chance opportunities.
“We have to communicate, find bodies, do all that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “But credit them for going and getting all those extra points. Those matter in a series like this.”
▪ Walker attempted just nine shots, which is simply not enough, especially with Gordon Hayward sidelined. He agreed with that assessment after the game.
“I’ve got to be more aggressive, I think,” Walker said. “Yeah, I wasn’t aggressive enough. That’s unacceptable on my behalf, to be honest. There’s no way I can just be taking nine shots. That’s unacceptable.”
▪ Robert Williams checked in for Theis less than three minutes into the first quarter. He had 6 points and 4 rebounds in 13 first-half minutes, but played just two minutes in the second half, when Boston was outscored, 51-44. Stevens prefers Theis in a matchup against Serge Ibaka, who played more extensively in the second half. But Ibaka mostly had his way anyway, finishing with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Look for Williams to get more of a look in Game 5.
▪ Lowry was in full attack mode at the start, drawing three fouls in the first 3:15. His frame, deceptive quickness, and crafty ability to draw contact make him a nuisance when he is driving to the rim. Following their wild win in Game 3, Lowry’s aggressiveness certainly set the tone quickly in Game 4.
▪ Jaylen Brown has played excellent defense for much of these playoffs, but his offense has been uneven. He missed his first five shots on Saturday, and when Walker fed him for an easy dunk midway through the second quarter, there was a sense that maybe that would spark him. But it did not. He was 0 for 9 on 3-pointers before connecting on a pair in the final minutes as the Celtics tried to mount a comeback. But his three fourth-quarter misses before that were momentum killers. He was 4 for 18 overall.
“I’ve got to shoot it with confidence and let it fly,” Brown said. “The coaching staff believes in me. My teammates need me. I’ve got to knock down shots, period.”
Brown has been trending downward. Since making 5 of 8 3-pointers in Game 1 against Philly, he has made just 13 of 51 in the seven playoff games since.
▪ The Raptors have won all four third quarters in this series, outscoring the Celtics by a combined score of 122-96. It could just be an oddity in a small sample size, but Toronto’s shooters have appeared more comfortable after halftime.
“Not only third quarters but generally the starts,” Stevens said. “We have to play better in those situations.”
▪ Without the presence of fans, it’s easier to hear some of the sounds of the game. In the second quarter Tatum was on a fast break when he fed Smart for what would have been an easy layup, but an official called a foul on the Raptors as Tatum passed the ball. Smart was not pleased by the timing. “Come on, man!” he yelled.
▪ When the Raptors led by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, it seemed like they stopped attacking on offense and tried to shorten the game by running down the shot clock. That often ends up poorly, especially for a team that was really in a rhythm. The offense did stall, but the Celtics were unable to capitalize, with Brown trying to lead the charge with his shooting.
▪ Stevens said before the game that Hayward, who has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle in Game 1 of the opening-round series against the 76ers, is expected to return to Orlando on Sunday. He will then have to quarantine for four days, and Stevens cautioned that he will not be ready to return to game action “anytime soon.” So there is no way he will play in this series, even if it reaches seven games.