There were two teams that ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season, the stuff of championship contention.
The LA Clippers (second on offense, fifth on defense) were one of those two teams. And in theory, the Clippers have been title favorites since almost half of the league’s GMs picked them 11 months ago. In practice, they’ve looked the part only sporadically.
The Boston Celtics didn’t enter the season with nearly the same expectations, in part because they parted ways with five of the top eight players from last year’s rotation. But it didn’t take them long to establish themselves as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference again, winning 25 of their first 33 games. They ranked fourth on both ends of the floor, maybe the most complete team in the East, with their efficiency off the dribble and their defensive versatility seemingly made for the postseason.
It all came together in Game 5 of the Celtics’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Toronto Raptors, though it took a while for one end of the floor to catch up with the other. With suffocating defense in the first quarter and potent offense in the second, the Celtics built a 27-point halftime lead and cruised to a buzzer-to-buzzer, 111-89 victory. They lead the series 3-2 with Game 6 on Wednesday (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Toronto’s second-ranked defense set the bar in Game 4 on Saturday. Two nights later, the Celtics’ set a new standard by holding the defending champs to just five points on their first 17 possessions.
Possession No. 15 was most emblematic of that stretch…
It started with a Kemba Walker turning the ball over in the paint. Good defense, especially against the Raptors, starts in transition. And even though the ball was loose off OG Anunoby’s deflection, the Celtics immediately got back, preventing a Toronto fast break before it could even start.
When Marcus Smart “iced” Kyle Lowry (keeping him away from the middle of the floor), Daniel Theis wasn’t immediately in the right position. But he got there quickly enough to cut off Lowry’s drive, and when Lowry tried to isolate the mismatch, Theis shut him down twice. In between, Walker stayed in front of a Norman Powell drive.
The 24-second violation was one of four turnovers in a five-possession stretch for Toronto that allowed the Celtics to build a double-digit lead. Walker played a big role in two of the other three, getting around a screen and back in front of Fred VanVleet, and then drawing a charge from Powell in transition.
Walker will always be a target of opposing offenses. But that’s more about his size and how good the rest of his team is defensively, and less about his effort or awareness on that end of the floor. This was not the first (or second or third) top-10 defense he’s been a part of.
“I’m just playing hard,” Walker said. “My job (defensively) is to play pick-and-roll defense as best as I could, get back in front of the basketball, and sacrifice my body when I’m able to. That’s it.”
The Celtics have defended the league’s best offenses well all season. The Raptors were not one of the league’s best offenses, and they were not at their best on Monday. Lowry didn’t have quite the same downhill push as he had in Game 3, Marc Gasol couldn’t make a layup, and Pascal Siakam remains unable to grab on to the role of leading man.
But Game 5 was more an exhibition of just how good Boston can be defensively.
“We were really active,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We were really just trying to play hard, as hard as we could. They missed a couple of shots. We missed some shots in the first quarter but we were playing with great purpose. You could feel that from the get go. So you just hope that you would knock enough (shots) in to kind of get something going and we did.”
They really didn’t get something going offensively until late in the first quarter, right at the end of that stretch where they forced four Toronto turnovers. Amazingly, after scoring just 14 points on their first 16 possessions, the Celtics broke through against a Toronto zone that had them somewhat flummoxed all series. And they did it with what should be the worst offensive lineup (no Walker or Jayson Tatum) they could put on the floor.
But that lineup overloaded the left side of the floor and Brad Wanamaker blew by an Anunoby close out, drew help, and dropped the ball off for Theis, who was superkicked by Siakam. After he made the free throws, Theis blocked a Powell drive, sparking a transition sequence them finished with a monstrous dunk from Jaylen Brown.
Eleven points on seven possessions late in that first quarter wasn’t an explosion, but it was a breakthrough in what has been the ugliest offensive series of these playoffs.
The explosion came in the second quarter, when the Celtics scored 37 points on 25 possessions, shooting 13-for-20 from the field. Smart, Tatum and Wanamaker took turns driving around Siakam, and Boston was just quicker than a Toronto defense that was so locked in just two nights earlier.
“I think we got a lot of movement,” Walker said of his team’s best offensive performance of the series. “We penetrated and whenever we drew two defenders, we made the right play, made the right pass. They closed out and we drove the basketball and made the right pass again and just got the better shot. That’s what it was.”
Brown (27 points on 10-for-18 shooting) led six Celtics in double-figures. As was the case in Game 1, when the Raptors couldn’t score early, they couldn’t keep up.
“They looked faster, stronger and hungrier than we did,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I thought we had great shots in the first quarter and we get 11 points. And somehow, that really disheartens us against this team.”
The Raps are the defending champs, and they’ll surely come with more energy with their season on the line in Game 6 on Wednesday. But to take this series to the limit, they’ll have to win ugly. Given their offensive issues, the champs probably can’t put together a complete performance like we just saw from the Celtics.
“They outplayed us pretty much in every facet of the game,” Fred VanVleet said. “They were quicker to the ball, they were playing with more force and pace, and as a result you saw the start that they were able to get out to. [It] kind of put ourselves in a hole and we were fighting uphill after that.”
Fighting uphill and now one game from elimination against a team that looked every bit of a championship contender on Monday.
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