ORLANDO — You hope the Celtics can get over this, coming up empty after a 58-minute battle with their sudden archrivals from the North, coming so close to a berth in the Eastern Conference finals but unable to make that one final play or perhaps draw that one pivotal foul.
The Celtics walked away from their 125-122 double-overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors an angry bunch but strangely encouraged. They played well enough to win, but the Raptors, especially Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry, made more plays Wednesday night.
The anger boiled over after the buzzer when Marcus Smart got into an exchange with some Raptors players following yet another close and controversial finish. Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who is rising to the Joe Torre and Pat Riley level of villainhood in Boston, once again complained after almost every call and resorted to screaming when Celtics players were holding the ball in front of the Toronto bench.
The Raptors were desperate and junked everything up to win this game, so they deserve credit for achieving their aim. The question is whether they have finally taken the life out of the Celtics. The Celtics again were the better team in the first half, then got punched in the face again in the third quarter, before waging a captivating battle for the final 22 minutes.
Toronto is the defending champion and it realizes it needs every ounce of energy and a couple of breaks to beat the Celtics four times. It has won three.
So the Celtics have 48 hours to forget about Game 6. It’s win or head back to Boston, massively disappointed. They have a path to the NBA Finals. They have the talent to get there, but their All-Star core has to show up together.
On Wednesday, it was Kemba Walker who struggled mightily. Considered one of the top point guards in the league, Walker managed just 5 points — although it could have been 7 if the officials had called a foul on OG Anunoby as Walker attacked the basket in the final seconds of regulation.
Instead, there was no call, and an infuriated Walker screamed, “Monty! Monty!” and stared at supervisor of officials Monty McCutchen as he watched from near the media area. McCutchen did not respond.
The Celtics just have to be better in Game 7. Jaylen Brown turned the ball over twice on drives in the second overtime, stripped the same way by Lowry. Jayson Tatum made a series of questionable decisions with the ball, including throwing a pass toward the corner when he thought Nurse, standing in the area far from the coach’s box, was Daniel Theis.
The scrum at the end showed the teams are tired of playing each other and tired of each other’s styles. The Celtics are tired of hearing Nurse complain after every call or Lowry sell every contact as a flagrant foul. This is how the Raptors have to operate, honestly. They are relying on guile and clutch plays, and it was enough in Game 6.
Powell was stellar in the overtimes. Lowry hit some monumental shots. The Celtics couldn’t match that. Walker scored 2 points in the two overtimes. He had to be better. Any type of contribution from Walker down the stretch and the Celtics are in the Eastern Conference finals. Instead, they are at a Game 7, with one more opportunity to make this season special.
“It’s definitely a great teaching moment for this group,” Brown said. “We had a lot of opportunities down the stretch. We didn’t take care of the ball the way we needed to. That’s fine. We’re headed to a Game 7. We feel good about ourselves. Obviously, we wanted to get the win, but circle back and we come back with a great spirit and get ready for Game 7.”
Brown was optimistic. Celtics coach Brad Stevens wouldn’t address Nurse’s behavior or the officiating, only saying the Celtics can control only what they can control. Walker was incensed at himself for such a poor performance. The Raptors played a box-and-one on Walker and he attempted only three shots in the first half. But in the second half he looked hesitant. He played with little confidence and it cost the Celtics dearly.
They need Walker. That’s why they gave him a maximum deal this summer, for moments like this.
“I just really can’t find the rhythm,” Walker said. “I thought I had a few good looks, but it just wasn’t enough to help my teammates out. A bad offensive night. A terrible offensive night.”
Again, the Celtics came out of this game angry but optimistic. But they have only one more chance here. Maybe it’s apropos this series goes to seven games. The Celtics can’t question their effort after losing in double overtime. It was bad luck and a lack of execution.
They will have to again focus on the prize in Game 7. They need to be more efficient. Walker has to be better and they can’t continuously waste possessions in key moments. They are keeping Toronto alive in this series and you hope these lackadaisical stretches don’t come back to haunt them and ruin what could be a memorable season.
“Why wouldn’t I be [confident in my team]?” Walker said. “That was a hard-fought game right there. We could have [given] up. We didn’t. We fought hard. We made plays throughout the whole game. It took two overtimes. We have a good group of guys and we love playing basketball with each other. I know we’ll respond. We’re going to come out and play hard again.”