ORLANDO — Before the Celtics move on to the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, which is expected to be another grueling series, it’s required to take a look back at the Celtics' just-concluded seven-game series with the Toronto Raptors, primarily the Game 7 win, which has heightened expectations on this season.
With the Milwaukee Bucks and the Raptors looming in the East and expected to be the Celtics' consecutive playoff opponents, Boston was considered a dark horse at best to reach the NBA Finals. Now the Celtics are the higher seed in a matchup with the Heat, who upset the top-seeded Bucks in five games.
It was the fifth-seeded Heat who had to wait several days to find out who their conference final opponent would be, while the Celtics and Raptors raged their own Atlantic Division war, with the Raptors recovering from nearly being down three games to none to tie the series.
Game 7 would again test the Celtics' mettle like the previous six games. But this time the Celtics would not snap under the constant Toronto siege. Instead they countered with a series of hustle plays and defensive gems that won the series.
The Celtics jumped out to a 19-7 lead and then allowed a 20-4 run and looked as if they would be chasing all night. But two things were apparent: The Celtics were intent on avoiding those second-half lackadaisical skids that cost them Games 4 and 6, and the Raptors were teetering on exhaustion.
“I learned that everything isn’t always going to go your way,” guard Marcus Smart said. “You’ve got to continue to find a way. A lot of times for this team things have gotten a little shaky on the offensive end. We’re not hitting as many shots and that’s when we tend to lose (our focus) especially in big games but to learn from that and to come back in a Game 7 when you’re not hitting shots and it feels like (with) the one big shot we can put them away but they just kept coming but to continue to stay poised and finish that game, it was huge for us.”
Kemba Walker’s guile and fortitude were tested in the Toronto series as the Raptors decided to focus their defense on him by employing a box-and-one, assigning a special defender to Walker while the other four Raptors played zone. The move took Walker completely out of his rhythm in Games 6 and 7. He was 7-for-27 shooting and 2 for 13 from the 3-point line. Walker struggled to get to his preferred spots and didn’t really get comfortable until the perfect time — the second half of Game 7. Walker led the Celtics with 8 points in the final period.
“I struggled last game; I struggled this game but there was no quit in me,” Walker said. “My teammates, they encouraged me … They made me keep my head up … I could have easily got down on myself but they wouldn’t let me. They held me down and that’s what a team is for.”
The consensus from the players and coaches is the Celtics are a better team now than they were two weeks ago because of this Toronto challenge. The Raptors were the defending NBA champions with a large core of that team back despite losing Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We were winning and had enough stops to win the game,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Both teams were really tired. Both teams laid it all out there. This has been a grueling series. I give a lot of credit to (the Raptors). They never never go away. We had to gut run out to earn it.”
The Raptors had been in Florida for nearly three months, having to travel south and out of Canada two weeks early because of that country’s COVID-19 restrictions. It became apparent Toronto coach Nick Nurse didn’t have full trust in some players he used during the regular season, such as Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher, and he used just seven players in the series, and it cost the Raptors in Game 7.
“I thought a lot of (our mistakes) was just some fatigue,” Nurse said. "I thought we were getting off passes a count early just because we wanted to be done with that particular possession. It was going to take a little bit more strength and balance and another count of timing to get the right pass made. That’s fatigue. We had some stretches of poor offense in the second half.
“We didn’t play great in this series, there’s no denying that.”
Whether that was a result of the Celtics' imposing their will, especially on defense, or fatigue or a subpar performance from All-Star Pascal Siakam, the Celtics left the series as the better team. They won two games with ease, a third with late-game execution and the fourth (Game 7) with defense and hustle plays.
The goal for any team with championship aspirations is to learn from one series and take that education to the next. The Celtics were certainly tested by a cagey coach and a shrewd point guard in Kyle Lowry.
“I’ve coached in a lot of playoff games now, a lot of playoff series, a lot of NCAA Tournament games, I’d say that we saw more defenses and more stuff,” Stevens said. “Right when something worked, the next play it didn’t work anymore. That’s a credit to them. They keep you on your toes every time. [Nurse] is a heck of a coach. Lowry is up there with the best I’ve coached against. We should definitely be hardened. We should definitely have a lot more in our tool box to go back to. But we also have to get ready for a different, more unique team now in Miami.”