It’s been a rough 24 hours for Boston Celtics fans and we’re not here to pile on. But there’s something we haven’t been able to shake since OG Anunoby’s improbable 3-pointer rattled home after the buzzer of Game 3: The Raptors have lived this before.
You need only rewind to the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. Toronto dropped the first two games to the lower-seeded Bucks before producing a momentum-shifting, double-overtime victory in Game 3. What happened next? Three more Toronto wins followed to end the series and send the Raptors into the NBA Finals with the momentum that would help deliver the Larry O’Brien trophy.
That’s how quickly things can change. Heck, if Anunoby misses that final shot on Thursday night — and we’re still wondering how many times out of 100 that quarterback Kyle Lowry could put that pass in the absolute perfect spot with Boston’s defense uncharacteristically a split-second late to react — the Raptors are down 3-0 and, after an extended bubble stay, are ripe for a sweep on Saturday.
Instead, this series is a long way from over. A couple caveats here:
1. The 2020 Celtics are better than that 2019 Bucks, even if Milwaukee produced its own four-game blitz against Boston a round earlier. Yes, that team had league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo but the Celtics have more overall talent and don’t have to deal with the ebb and flow of the supporting cast the way the Bucks have in recent seasons.
* The 2020 Raptors don’t have Kawhi Leonard. That’s a big deal in this. Though, we should note that, coming off that double-overtime Game 3 win in 2019, one in which Leonard played an absurd 52 minutes in a must-win situation, it was much of the current Toronto core that carried the Raptors in Game 4 against the Bucks.
Still, the lesson here is that the Bucks never quite dusted themselves off after that Game 3 loss. Milwaukee dropped Game 4 by 18 points then fumbled away a double-digit lead early in Game 5. The series was over in 6.
All of which is our somewhat longwinded way of saying this: We’re going to find out a WHOLE bunch about the 2020 Celtics in Game 4 against the Raptors on Saturday. In a postseason in which just about everything has gone right, we’ll see how Boston reacts to the gut punch of all gut punches.
Boston dominated the early portion of the postseason, delivering a TKO to Joel Embiid and the Sixers. They had Lowry and the Raptors on the ropes in Game 3 and Anunoby landed an improbable haymaker. The Celtics need to shake any cobwebs real fast.
"What it is is just extra fuel, because we know throughout that game, we could have obviously been a lot better,” said Marcus Smart. “This is our first loss in the playoffs so, when you lose, it puts a bad taste in your mouth and you want to get back out there and redeem yourself. So [Saturday] should be a fun game.”
From the glass-half-full perspective, Jayson Tatum had a bit of a dud (5-of-18 shooting, 15 points) and Smart couldn’t build off his Game 2 heroics (4-of-15 shooting, 11 points). And yet a lot of things went right for Boston, too, including Jaylen Brown putting the clamps on Pascal Siakam, defensively. Both sides should feel like they can play better than what we saw on Thursday night.
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Brad Stevens made a handful of curious decisions, not the least of which was deploying Enes Kanter during a disastrous third quarter in which Toronto surged ahead. The NBA’s tracking data had Kanter giving up 9 points in little more than a minute of defensive activity and the mere sight of Kanter in drop coverage was enough to light Fred VanVleet’s previous soaked fuse. Stevens was looking for an offensive jolt but it came at the cost of giving the same jolt to the Raptors.
Hopefully we’ll see more of Robert Williams on Saturday. He hasn’t been perfect but Boston has played with a different intensity in his minutes. Williams had a net rating of plus-19.2 in his 13 minutes, 35 seconds of floor time on Thursday.
Stevens might just have to live with some of the defensive inconsistencies when Williams is on the court and hope those poster dunks and volleyball blocks make up for the lapses.
Stevens tried to put the blame for Thursday’s late-game lapse on himself and told his players Friday to simply focus on what’s ahead.
"I told our guys, I don’t want any of them to lose any sleep over [the final play],” said Stevens. "If anything, let me lose the sleep, and we’ll move on.”
Stevens sounded confident his team wouldn’t linger on what Jaylen Brown termed a “f—ing disgrace” of a final sequence.
“We have a really competitive group. We have a really intrinsically motivated group,” said Stevens. "At the end of the day, in basketball, as long as there’s time on the clock, anything can happen, and we were on the unfortunate end of a tough loss last night. So you lick your wounds, you’re feeling whatever emotions you’re feeling, and then you move on.
"You try your best to do what you can, to control what you can, to be the best that you can, and for some people, putting a chip on that shoulder is the way to go about it. For others, it’s just being able to focus a little bit more on the task at hand in that moment. Everybody’s a little bit different in that. But, at the end of the day, I love this team. I love their competitive spirit.
“[A reporter asked Thursday] whether we were going to play hard or not because it was 2-0 and that’s not anything I’m ever worried about with this group. They’re going to bring it. They’re going to give everything they have. And if we get beat, we get beat. [Thursday] night wasn’t the way we wanted it to end but we’re looking forward to getting a chance to compete again, because we like to compete.”
If the Celtics like to compete, they better respond. Let the 2019 Bucks show that, if they don’t, Boston will be on vacation real fast and left wondering how it all got away.
We’re about to learn if the Celtics have a championship resolve. One of the things that sank last year’s team was being unable to respond when things went sideways. This year’s team just encountered its first real adversity since before the season paused. How will the players respond?
Game 4 might just tell us if this team is truly fit to contend for a title.