As the Celtics waited to take the floor for Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Raptors on Monday, Kemba Walker moved from teammate to teammate, patting chests with just enough force for them to feel it.
“I’m checking hearts today,” he said over and over. “I’m checking hearts.”
After the Celtics lost Game 4, Walker acknowledged that Toronto had played harder and been tougher, and he vowed to ensure that it would not happen again. And for one night, it certainly did not, as Boston seized control and never trailed, rolling to a 111-89 win.
The Celtics led by as many as 30 points and are now one win from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. Game 6 will be played on Wednesday night.
Jaylen Brown bounced back from his poor Game 3 performance and poured in 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting. Walker added 21 points and seven assists. In the first half, when this game was decided, the Celtics made 55 percent of their shots while the Raptors connected on just 30.2 percent.
“You can’t go through a playoffs without something bad happening, and you just have to be able to respond,” coach Brad Stevens said. “So I thought that’s what I take away. I knew we had good competitive character, and you really saw that on display tonight.”
Observations from the game:
▪ Brown had a miserable offensive game Saturday, and has mostly struggled on offense during this series. But he vowed to do more Monday, and it was a good sign when he drilled a 3-pointer on Boston’s first possession. He was aggressive and active, and he provided the game’s most powerful highlight when he soared over OG Anunoby for a violent one-handed slam that stretched the lead to 18-5.
“I didn’t change anything, really,” Brown said. “The emphasis, I would say, was less is more. Just keep making the simple plays, hit singles, and that paid off. The mindset was the same.”
Added Stevens: “It was good to see him knock in that first one, but I don’t think it would have mattered if he missed a couple early. He was going to be aggressive, and that was good for our team.”
▪ Teams are usually reluctant to make lineup changes at this point in a season, but the Raptors might want to consider starting Serge Ibaka in place of Marc Gasol. Gasol simply cannot get his perimeter game in motion. His four early misses helped ignite Boston, and he finished the game scoreless. Gasol has typically remained a solid defender late in his career, but the Celtics have consistently exploited him in pick-and-roll actions in this series, too.
▪ Daniel Theis was a constant deterrent on Raptors’ drives, particularly in the first half. He had two blocked shots and disturbed so many others. He finished the game with 15 points and 8 rebounds, too. Theis was the victim of a bizarre and inadvertent foul early in the first quarter, when Pascal Siakam somehow kicked him in the face with his back to Theis. It was accidental, but, ouch.
▪ Stevens said that Robert Williams played just three minutes in the second half of Game 4 because the Raptors were exploiting him in pick-and-roll situations, and when that started to happen again as Toronto chipped away at the lead in the second quarter Monday, Grant Williams was quickly sent in.
▪ Walker took just nine shots in Game 4, and it was clear that would not happen again. He took 15 Monday, but really set the tone in other ways in the first half, from swatting a Kyle Lowry shot attempt in the opening minutes to standing in to take a charge on a fast break. His scoring will be there, but he’s playing with the intensity of a nine-year veteran who had never advanced this far in the playoffs before.
▪ Brad Wanamaker has been reliable all season and had a powerful second-quarter stretch, mostly in a three-guard lineup that included Walker and Marcus Smart. He finished the first half with 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and no turnovers, and Boston outscored Toronto by 18 points during his 17 first-half minutes.
“It was hard to take him out,” Stevens said. “He was playing great. When they go to their zones and they go to things like that, he’s got such a great feel for the game, such great instincts that he can just kind of adjust with the flow.”
▪ Lowry averaged 26.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7.5 assists in his team’s two recent wins, but on Monday he was held to 10 points, 5 assists, and 2 rebounds and made 3 of 8 shots. Jayson Tatum had been Lowry’s primary defender in this series, but Stevens switched Smart onto him a bit more often Monday. After this result, that will be the approach in Game 6, too.
▪ If there is a nitpick, it’s that the Celtics didn’t finish off the win particularly well. They led by 30 before the Raptors chipped away in the fourth quarter, mostly with their backups playing against Boston’s starters. A Norman Powell 3-pointer pulled Toronto within 97-80 with 5:09 left, and Boston still stuck with all five starters until the four-minute mark, which probably was not what Stevens envisioned when the lead was so massive.
“It’s a good feeling when you can game plan, talk about something and then go out there and do it,” Tatum said. “But also, it’s frustrating if we can do it, then why don’t we do it every time? Some of it’s human nature. But us as professionals, we’ve just got to take more responsibility.”
▪ Including a seeding game, the Celtics now have wins over the Raptors by 22, 18, and 22 points in their six matchups in Orlando. That’s convincing evidence that Boston is simply the better team. Still, it will be incredibly important to win Game 6 and not give this battle-tested Toronto team a shot in a winner-take-all.
▪ Until Grant Williams hit a 3-pointer with 1:50 left, all of the Celtics’ points had been scored by the five starters and Wanamaker.
▪ Stevens said after the game that Gordon Hayward has returned to Orlando and has begun his mandatory quarantine before rejoining the team. Hayward has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle in the Game 1 win over the 76ers on Aug. 17. Stevens said it is unclear how long Hayward’s quarantine will last.