The Celtics' 10-point lead was all but gone, and these Raptors, who had stunned and stymied the Celtics in the most unlikely ways over the course of these conference semifinals, appeared to have an opportunity to do it once more.
After Jayson Tatum missed a layup with a minute left, Normal Powell broke free on a fast-break with a chance to tie the game, with only a backpedaling Marcus Smart in his way. Smart said that in the moment he thought back to Powell’s big 3-point play on a similar sequence in Toronto’s Game 6 double-overtime win.
“So when he caught the ball,” Smart said, “in my mind I was just telling myself ‘He has to dunk it, I’m not going to give him no foul. I’m just going to meet him up top and see who wins that battle.’ I bet on myself 110 percent of the time, and I’m first team All-Defense for a reason, and I believe in that wholeheartedly.”
Smart met Powell in midair and swatted his layup attempt off the backboard, preserving the lead and ultimately saving Boston’s 92-87 Game 7 win that will send it to the conference finals against the Heat.
After Smart’s block, Kemba Walker drove and fed Grant Williams, who was fouled under the hoop by Kyle Lowry, who fouled out on the play. Williams missed both free throws. But Jayson Tatum soared in for the rebound and was fouled with 34.9 seconds left.
He made the first but missed the second, giving Toronto one last chance. But Williams stayed in front of Fred VanVleet and got a fingertip on his desperation 3-pointer.
Tatum had 29 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists to lead the Celtics. Boston had 12 steals, forced 18 turnovers overall and scored 31 points off of them.
The Celtics won despite making just 9 of 38 3-pointers and 10 of 21 foul shots and being held without a field goal for the final 5 minutes, 20 seconds of the game.
“But we really guarded,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And we had a number of good contributions in that area.”
Observations from the game:
▪ This series could have ended a long time ago. If the Raptors didn’t execute the perfect, unlikely buzzer-beater to steal Game 3, they would have fallen behind 3-0 in the series and likely bowed out soon after. While the Celtics would have been happy with a sweep, there is value in a gritty, seven-game battle like this one.
“They keep you on your toes the whole time,” coach Brad Stevens said. “[Nick Nurse] is a heck of a coach. They’ve got really smart players. We should definitely be hardened. We should definitely have a lot more in our toolbox to go back to.”
▪ Williams was on the bench for the first three quarters before Stevens called on him for important stretches in the fourth. The first stint was to throw a different look at Toronto’s small-ball lineup, and the second was because Daniel Theis had fouled out. Stevens said he told his assistants before the game that he was unlikely to use Williams at power forward, but that he could put him in at center.
“[Pascal] Siakam made a couple of nice moves against Grant, but I thought Grant guarded him pretty well,” Stevens said. “And I thought the last play, when he switched out on VanVleet, was great.”
▪ Gordon Hayward, who has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle in Game 1 of Boston’s opening-round series against the 76ers, completed a light on-court workout prior to Friday’s game. Stevens said that he thinks Hayward will return at some point in the conference finals.
▪ Walker smirked a bit when he was asked about Smart’s block in the final minute.
“That block was so special,” he said. “It was unreal. That’s why he’s first team all-defense. He shows it night in and night out. He made so many huge plays tonight. A lot of the things he does just go unnoticed. But that kid, he’s special, man. He’s on a different level at that end of the basketball court.”
▪ Just like in Game 6, the Raptors spent much of the first half in a box-and-one defense on Walker. And just like in Game 6, Walker struggled to find ways around it. He was just 0 for 2 before getting his first basket on a runner in the lane with 3:48 left in the first half. But he was there when the Celtics needed him, scoring 8 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. He advances to the conference finals for the first time in his career.
▪ The Raptors were much too careless with the ball. The most egregious turnover came late in the first quarter, when Serge Ibaka grabbed a rebound after a Tatum miss and passed to Pascal Siakam, who was standing out of bounds after his momentum had carried him there. During the second quarter stretch in which Boston reclaimed the lead, Toronto turned over the ball on six of eight possessions. Boston’s defense deserves credit for these mishaps, too.
▪ The Celtics went on an 11-0 second-quarter run that, unsurprisingly, was keyed by Smart. The Raptors had a 40-33 lead when Smart came up with a steal and fed Tatum for an alley-oop. Then he took a charge on Ibaka before hitting a driving bank-shot. His flurry was punctuated by another steal and layup that gave Boston a 41-40 lead. With all due respect to Tatum, Smart was probably Boston’s most valuable player in this series.
▪ Players have been slipping all over the floor during these Orlando games. Maybe it’s the Florida humidity or something, but it hasn’t been great. Brown tweaked his groin when he slipped and took an awkward fall after converting a fast-break layup. He stayed in the game, though.
“It started hurting and, to be honest, adrenaline took over,” Brown said. “I couldn’t feel anything. I’m feeling it now, but at the moment, I didn’t feel [anything].”
▪ Plus/minus can be a deceptive stat, but it was pretty telling for Raptors center Marc Gasol in the first half. The Celtics once again looked to attack him on defensive switches, and at the other end his 3-pointers were once again clanging off the rim. Toronto was outscored by 20 points in Gasol’s 13:50 in the first half.