ORLANDO – It was reasonable to question whether Celtics coach Brad Stevens could motivate his team to respond from their Game 4 drubbing. The Celtics cracked last season when the Milwaukee Bucks imposed their will and perhaps the Celtics carried a woe is me mentality to the NBA bubble.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, one of the most important games of Stevens’s tenure, one that would prove whether his team is mentally rugged enough to withstand playoff adversity, the Celtics responded with one of their more dominant stretches of the past few years to make a definitive statement.
Boston was the better team for two games, 47 minutes and 59½ seconds in this series. And then the OG Anunoby game-winning shot turned the series around. Yet, after two days of reflection on whether they deserve more than just a conference semifinal appearance and whether they have enough guile to knock off the defending champion, the Celtics reclaimed control of the series with a 111-89 win on Monday on Game 5.
It would have been easy for the Celtics to succumb to the playoff pressure. Only the elite teams belong here. Only the mentally toughest and relentless teams survive here. Are the Celtics one of those teams? They had to answer that question over the past 48 hours when the Raptors appeared to have all the momentum and mental edge.
But from the opening tip Monday, almost literally, the Celtics grabbed control with a stifling defense and enough timely baskets to build an 18-5 lead.
Boston would never trail, and Toronto coach Nick Nurse was relegated to throwing zones, throwing tantrums and throwing in any of his reserves that may spark his team. It was ineffective. The Celtics cleared a significant mental hurdle, responding from piercing adversity that may have extinguished them last season.
“It’s a good feeling when you can game plan, talk about something and go out there and do it,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “But it’s also frustrating that we can do it, why don’t we do it every time? Some of it is human nature. But as professionals, we have to take more responsibility. It’s not an easy task, they’re the defending champs. It’s the playoffs, it’s going to be tough but if you want to keep playing, more often than not, you gotta go out there and compete.”
Before the Celtics have to prove they can beat the Raptors twice after the disappointing Games 3 and 4, they had to prove they could beat them once. The Raptors have been almost gloating over the past two days, feeling like that Anunoby shot frazzled the Celtics for Game 4. And the Celtics looked completely shocked, especially Jaylen Brown, whose 4-for-18 Game 4 performance summarized the Celtics’ Game 3 hangover.
Brown responded in Game 5 with 27 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and again staunch defense on Toronto star Pascal Siakam. The Celtics’ young core has been through their share of playoff roller coasters — the Game 7 loss to Cleveland in 2018, the collapse against Milwaukee last season — that they had to know this series with the Raptors would again challenge their fortitude.
“Gotta come out ready to fight every night and if you don’t, that’s how you lose,” Brown said. “[This win] don’t say nothing. We gotta get ready to play [Wednesday]. The job’s not finished yet. Still gotta a lot of work that needs to be done. Sometimes it’s about simplifying things, making it easy. Less is more.
“I didn’t change anything really, from the last game to this game. Same mind-set. I believe in myself. I think my coaching staff and the organization believes in me.”
Early September NBA is currently the premier sport with likely more attention than the normal spring playoffs because of the pandemic. Every game is magnified because it’s the most important sporting event. Baseball is in the regular season. The NFL is a few days from kicking off. College football is just trying to conduct a season without health issues.
So every bubble playoff game draws considerable national attention. Remember, the Celtics were going to cruise to the Finals after Game 2. The Raptors were back to their championship ways after Game 4. And now the Celtics have a chance to unseat the defending champions Wednesday.
That last statement is reality. For the next two days the Celtics will have to figure out how to keep the mental edge. But the good news Monday is they regained it. They didn’t disintegrate under the pressure. They exceeded Toronto’s intensity, punched first and then punched again. When the Celtics are playing with this tenacity, they have the makings of an elite team.
It was encouraging for a franchise that’s been trying to take the next step.
“We were playing with great purpose, you could feel that from the get go,” Stevens said. “That’s the thing that I take away. It’s not about winning a game. It’s not about winning three in a series now. It’s about just the process of growth when you show that resilience. That’s what it’s all about. You can’t go through the playoffs without having heart-breakers. You can’t go through the playoffs without something bad happening and you just have to be able to respond. I knew we had good competitive character, you really saw that on display [Monday].”