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BOSTON – With every game that passes, it seems, the Boston Celtics are developing more and more championship DNA.
Their two most recent victories over the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals stand as convincing evidence of the trend.
Each victory was of championship caliber. They required mental perseverance, physical feats and outstanding execution.
Contenders are able to deliver on those needs. Pretenders are not.
The Raptors, who now sit in an 0-2 series hole, know all about this. It was just over a year ago that they themselves made an unexpected title run behind similar play to what Boston has showcased thus far in the postseason. When Toronto needed a big play last postseason, it got it in some way, shape or form.
Boston is only six wins into the postseason but it is trending in a similar direction. Let’s take a look at a few examples of the Celtics playing at a championship level - examples that were simply missing from the team a season ago.
If you’re gonna win a title, you need someone who is not only capable of creating his own shot scoring at critical junctures of games, but also someone who can be relied upon to do so. Boston has two bona fide scorers who can and have done just that in Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.
The need for these plays arrives in many ways throughout NBA playoff games. Sometimes a team needs to build and maintain momentum. Sometimes it needs to end an opponent’s momentum. And sometimes it just needs to win a game during the final seconds.
Here is an example of Tatum playing the role of run-stopper during Game 1. Boston had pulled ahead by 19 points during the first quarter, but Toronto had stormed back to within nine early in the second quarter. The Raptors had all of the momentum, until Tatum did this:
It might not seem like a big shot, seeing as it took place early on in the second quarter, but it was. Imagine if Tatum had missed, and Toronto came down and scored at the other end. All of a sudden it’s a seven-point game, and the outcome of the contest could very well have been different.
Here’s another example, this time from Monday’s Game 2. Boston led by just one point heading into the final minute. It badly needed a bucket to go ahead by three and ensure that it would at the very least be tied after Toronto’s next possession. The C’s got it thanks to a patented crossover-stepback from Walker against Serge Ibaka – a replica of the same move he used to shake Al Horford during the first round for a similarly critical basket that essentially sealed Boston’s Game 3 victory over the 76ers during the first round.
It’s impossible to understate the importance of this type of shot-creation and shot-making ability. Shots like these define title runs.
Lock-Down, Crunch-Time Defense
Everyone knows the old adage that defense wins championships. It’s true, especially in crunch time.
Every single team that wins a championship relies on its defense to get stops at the end of games at some point or another, and not just in Game 7 situations. This is a constant need throughout long and arduous playoff runs.
The Celtics have excelled in this department throughout the Playoffs, most notably during the final minutes of Game 2. During the final two-plus minutes of a tight contest, Boston limited Toronto to just three points, including a scoreless final 60 seconds of what was a one-possession game.
Watch this stop. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown switch seamlessly, leaving Smart as the primary defender in an iso situation against All-Star Pascal Siakam. Smart, an All-Defensive First Team performer who should be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, not only rides Siakam’s hip to the basket, but also pokes the ball away as Siakam raises for an attempted layup.
Toronto got the ball back after the strip, but then Siakam stepped out of bounds on the ensuing inbound play. Even if he hadn’t, the C’s were still in quality defensive position to get a stop.
That wasn’t the first time this postseason that the C’s needed a stop and got one, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Delivering on the two topics above isn't easy. That requires a mental edge that the majority of the teams in this league lack.
So, too, does coming back from a 12-point deficit late in the third quarter against a seasoned, veteran and championship-winning opponent, all while not having your A-game available that night. That's exactly what Boston did during Monday night's Game 2, just as it did during Game 3 of the first round.
Monday night was a struggle, to say the least, for the guys in green. The Celtics shot just 42.1 percent from the field, they committed 17 turnovers, and they received only three points from their bench over the final three quarters of the game. Yet somehow, some way, they dug deep and found a way to upend the defending champs. Sure, it took some luck and a wild stretch from Smart, but they found a way nonetheless - and that's what teams with championship DNA do.