Nick Nurse is the Coach of the Year, but neither he nor anybody else was prepared for Marcus Smart turning into Klay Thompson for what may have been the most important stretch of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between Nurse’s Toronto Raptors and Smart’s Boston Celtics.
“Marcus Curry” was trending on twitter at one point on Tuesday night, but Smart was more like Thompson than Stephen Curry, playing mostly off the ball as he drained five 3-pointers in a little more than three minutes, part of a game-changing 16-7 run early in the fourth quarter that pushed the Celtics to a 102-99 victory in Game 2.
With Boston holding a 2-0 series lead, Game 3 will be Thursday (6:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
These are two great defenses and, appropriately, this has not been a pretty offensive series. The two teams have combined to score 407 points on 405 possessions, with the Raptors shooting 39% and the Celtics committing 40 turnovers.
The Celtics scored just 42 points on 49 possessions over the second and third quarters on Tuesday. Through 36 minutes, they had only six buckets in the restricted area, on their way to finishing with just eight (their fewest in any game this season). But because the Raptors hadn’t run away (their biggest lead was 12), Boston just needed one good offensive stretch to turn the game around.
“We had 12 minutes left in the game,” Jayson Tatum said, “so we had more than enough time to get back in the game and give ourselves a chance to win, so we wasn’t worried.”
Smart, who shot 1-for-7 through the first three quarters (the one make was on the Celtics’ second possession of the game), provided that needed flurry early in the fourth, scoring the Celtics’ first 16 points of the period. The Raptors’ defense was better on Tuesday than it was in Game 1 — the last four of those five 3s weren’t nearly as open as some as the looks Smart got two days earlier — but the first one was wide open, and there was no stopping Smart after that.
“I’m laughing to myself and to the opponent sometimes,” Smart said afterward, “just telling them ‘don’t give me a good look. All I need is one.'”
“They obviously got a lot of firepower around,” Nurse said. “But he is kind of a wild card scorer for them, and he’s had two huge games for them.”
“It’s a long game,” Jayson Tatum said. “Everybody had tough shooting nights. You would never tell anybody to stop shooting, especially somebody that’s accomplished as much as [Walker] has and done it for 10, 11 years. When he’s off, I always tell him to shoot the next one. When I’m off, he tells me the same. You never know which one might get you going.”
There is a certain degree of mental toughness needed to fight through a night when shots aren’t falling.
“I’ve missed so many shots in my life,” Walker said. “I have missed so many shots throughout my career. I’m never going to get down on myself.”
“I don’t think you can say enough about that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens added. “That’s the part – an unwavering confidence where if you continue to do the right thing, the ball will find the net. I’ll tell you what, Kemba’s shots were huge. The pull-up off the side ball screen with about a minute and a half left was enormous. To struggle and then come back and make it was great.”
The Celtics made up for a 44-24 points-in-the-paint discrepancy by outscoring the champs by seven at the free throw line and by 12 from beyond the arc. And while it was Smart who caught fire in the fourth, the biggest part of those advantages was Tatum, who was 14-for-14 from the line, 4-for-7 from deep, and the Curry to Smart’s Thompson during that fourth-quarter barrage.
Tatum assisted on the first three of Smart’s five fourth-quarter 3s, and then set him up with a “secondary assist” (followed by a Grant Williams swing pass) on the fifth.
The evolution of Tatum from “young player with promise” to “22-year-old star on a team with the goods to reach The Finals” has been rapid, and its been mostly about his scoring (and his defense to a certain degree). He’s become a more potent offensive player with improvement on off-the-dribble 3s (from 32.4% last season to 40.4% this season) and a reduction in mid-range shots. But Tatum has also seen a jump in free throw rate, and while he got bailed out a couple of times (one, two) on possessions in which he didn’t have much going, he was also aggressive in driving and drawing contact.
Tatum’s playmaking has yet to come as far as his scoring. In the regular season, he recorded assists on just 11.7% of his possessions, the third-lowest rate among 41 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher. And in Game 1 on Sunday, Kemba Walker did a better job of heeding Brad Stevens’ message to get off the ball quickly against Toronto’s swarming defense, while Tatum was still a little too eager to play one-on-one.
But that fourth-quarter run included a couple of high-level passes, a wicked, one-handed cross-court dime on Smart’s second 3 and another cross-court kick-out to Williams, leading to the fifth of the five. Tatum finished with a career playoff highs in both points (34) and assists (six).
“I thought he was different tonight than even in Game 1,” Stevens said. “I thought he attacked quicker. When he caught the ball he went right to what he was trying to get to. That was a big part of him being able to score the ball tonight.”
The Raptors can’t help but feel that they let one get away. This was a one-possession game, with Fred VanVleet missing a long 3 for the tie at the buzzer.
The Raptors were down 0-2 last year’s conference finals against an opponent that looked like a juggernaut at the time. Through Game 2 of that series, the Milwaukee Bucks were 11-1 with a point differential of 15.3 points per game in the playoffs.
These Celtics haven’t been nearly as dominant. Four of their six postseason wins have been within five points in the last five minutes.
But to make this a competitive series with a win in Game 3 on Thursday, the Raptors need to find a way to score more consistently. After building that 12-point lead late in the third quarter of Game 2, the Raptors scored just nine points over their next 21 possessions, shooting 3-for-21 (including 0-for-16 outside the restricted area) over those 10 1/2 minutes.
After scoring 123 points per 100 possessions in their first-round sweep of Brooklyn, the Raptors have scored less than 96 per 100 in these two games. Their three leading scorers have all shot 36% or worse.
This was the fear with the defending champs, and where they (finally) miss Kawhi Leonard. They’ve been terrific all season in transition, but the half-court offense can struggle.
But as they hope for more shots to fall, they can look at their opponent for inspiration. As the Celtics showed us on Tuesday, one hot stretch can make a difference.
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