There are some games where the offense is so good, it’s a last-team-with-the-ball-wins situation. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics was definitely not one of those games. The offense was not good, because the defense was incredible.
“Right when something worked,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said about this series, “the next play it didn’t work anymore.”
The Boston defense, highlighted by an incredible block by Marcus Smart in the final minute, was just a little bit better on Friday. With a 92-87 victory, the Celtics survived and advanced to an Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Miami Heat.
The Raptors had the most efficient offense in the first round, scoring 122.9 points per 100 possessions in a sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. In this round, the Raptors ranked last offensively, scoring just 100.3.
The Celtics didn’t have a field goal for the final 5:22 of Game 7, a circumstance that would seemingly lead to defeat in a game that didn’t include any garbage time. But that final field goal — a Jayson Tatum drive past Pascal Siakam — put the Celtics up nine. And that was just enough of a lead to get them to the conference finals for the third time in the last four years.
The Raptors did have two chances to tie this game, though.
With the Celtics up two and just over a minute to go, Tatum missed on a drive, and suddenly Norman Powell was out on the break with only Smart in front of him. It was the exact same situation as the most important sequence in the second overtime of Game 6, a little more than 48 hours earlier. That time, Smart stayed in front of Powell, who powered through for a 3-point play that put the Raptors up four.
“As soon as Norman caught the ball,” Smart said afterward, “instantly I remembered last game where that exact same play, he came at me full court and got the and-one.”
As he crossed the midcourt line, Powell put the ball in his left hand so he could take the same angle to the basket, putting Smart on his heels.
“He made a good move, right-to-left crossover that made me shift my hips,” Smart said.
With the defender on his side, Powell was going to get better lift off the floor than he did in Game 6. But so was Smart, who later replayed what was going through his mind.
“I was just telling myself, ‘He has to dunk it. I’m not gonna get no foul. I’m gonna just meet him up top and see who wins that battle.'”
Powell leapt off one foot, but didn’t go for a dunk. Smart leapt off two and pinned the layup off the backboard. It rebounded to Jaylen Brown and the Celtics still had a two-point lead.
Game 6: Smart gets in front of Powell. And-1.
Game 7: Smart lets Powell go by. Block. pic.twitter.com/iQVILXdMjr
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) September 12, 2020
“I bet on myself 110% of the time,” Smart said, “I’m first-team All-Defense for a reason, and I believe in that wholeheartedly.”
I bet on myself 110% of the time. I’m first-team All-Defense for a reason, and I believe in that wholeheartedly.”
— Boston’s Marcus Smart
Tatum made a similarly huge hustle play on the other end of the floor, crashing the glass on the second of Grant Williams’ two missed free throws to grab an offensive rebound over Powell, who fouled Tatum on the way down. But when he missed one of his two freebies with 35 seconds left, the Raptors had another chance to tie.
Toronto ran a “Hammer” play that got them a wide-open corner 3 from Fred VanVleet in Game 6. With Kyle Lowry fouled out, VanVleet was the passer this time. Pascal Siakam flashed to the left elbow and handed the ball back to VanVleet, whose job was to get to the baseline for a pass to Powell in the left corner.
But Smart (guarding VanVleet) called for a switch from Brown, who slid into VanVleet’s path, blowing up the play, which the Celtics had covered on the weak side anyway. Tatum switched off of OG Anunoby, picked up Powell, and then fought through Serge Ibaka’s back-screen with somebody (Stevens presumably) yelling “Hammer! Hammer!”. Another Ibaka screen got Williams switched onto VanVleet late in the clock, but the rookie stayed solid and forced a high-arcing step-back 3 that didn’t have much of a chance.
Appropriately, this series was decided in the final 30 seconds. And appropriately, it was decided with a defensive stop.
Given how many rotation guys the Celtics lost last summer, it might be a surprise that they’re here. And given that how important Al Horford and Aron Baynes were to a defense that ranked sixth last season, it’s definitely a surprise that they’re here because of their play on that end of the floor.
The offensive development of Tatum and Brown has been the big story in Boston this season, and their offense (50 combined points, seven assists from Tatum) was critical on Friday. But their improvement defensively has been just as noteworthy. Daniel Theis stepped into a bigger role and anchored the Celtics inside, and Kemba Walker has been a solid defender for his size. Most importantly, if the Raptors were the most cohesive defensive group in the league, the Celtics weren’t far behind.
Toronto was so consistently good defensively that the champs were 51-3 when they scored at least 105 points per 100 possessions, five fewer than the league average of 110 per 100. If they were just decent offensively, the Raptors won. But the Celtics didn’t let them get anywhere near that 105-per-100 mark in Games 1, 5 and 7 of this series, three of Toronto’s nine least efficient games of the season (83 games total).
“Losing [Horford and Baynes] was definitely a big hit to our defense,” Smart said. “But it just allowed other people like Jayson and Jaylen and Theis and Rob Williams to step in and really pick up the slack on that end. That’s tremendous for us, because not only do you have Jayson and Jaylen playing offensively, but you got them playing defensively and becoming two-way players.”
Two-way players who are only 22 and 23 years old. The Celtics have ranked in the top seven defensively in 10 of the last 13 seasons, and there’s no stopping that run given how good these guys are now. It may seem like Smart’s been around forever, but he’s only 26.
It’s a young group. But at 23, Brown is now going to the conference finals for a third time. At 22, Tatum is making his second trip.
“They are young by every metric except playoff experience,” Stevens said. “They have a lot of it.”
And there’s more to come.
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