The Boston Celtics looked ready to sweep the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals after their first two games against the Toronto Raptors. That sentiment was held even through the third game of the series, until OG Anunoby sank a three at the buzzer to win the game by one. Boston lost all steam from that moment onward, winning just once in the next three games.
With the series on the line during today’s Game 7, these are the three things the Celtics must do in order to face the Miami Heat for the Conference Finals.
Don’t let lowry get in the game
Kyle Lowry is the heart and soul of this Raptors team, and beating the Raptors starts with him. This season, Toronto won 82% of games where Lowry scored 20 points or more. This series, he has averaged just 14.3 points in losses; 28.6 in wins.
The easiest way to negate Lowry’s impact? Match him up with Marcus Smart. That feels like a no-brainer, but late in Game 6 we saw Brad Stevens utilize a zone defensive scheme. While it was effective in stopping the Raptor’s offense (just 44 points allowed in the final 20 minutes of play), Lowry scored 15 points between the fourth quarter and two overtimes. Letting him get involved in the offensive game like that could spell danger for the Celtics.
Counter nurse’s small ball
Again looking late in the game, we saw Raptor’s HC Nick Nurse deploy a very small lineup. In the two overtime periods, Nurse played the same five players the whole time. Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam finished out the game for Toronto; that group has an average height of 6’4”.
Boston have better options than going equally as small, as teams typically do; the Celtics have weapons that make going big an even deadlier option.
If Stevens were to roll out a floor of Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis and Tacko Fall, he’s looing at an average height of 6’8”; four inches taller than Toronto’s small ball squad.
There are two glaring issues with such a lineup, those being the exclusion of Kemba Walker and inclusion of Tacko Fall. Walker has been the Celtic’s third highest scorer this series, and is their primary offensive facilitator. Fall, on the other hand, has seen under three minutes of play this entire postseason.
However, putting Fall on the floor creates a glaring mismatch on the floor. Where that mismatch occurs comes down to who Siakam guards. As the tallest Raptor on the court, he would have an obligation to cover Fall. But Siakam is arguably the Raptor’s best defender, who they would likely want on Tatum. If Siakam takes Fall, that leaves Anunoby to cover either Tatum or Theis; leaving Normal Powell on the worse of the two. Either way, the Celtics can easily overwhelm Powell. If Siakam opts for Tatum, that leaves Anunoby on Fall; Anunoby is shorter than Fall by nine inches.
While Fall’s lack of playing time makes for a risky play, but Stevens has shown a willingness to tactically use the Senegalese’s height; he checked in for just 0.5 seconds in game three of this series.
There is always an increased pressure for playoff games, but the Celtics have some unique internal demons they will need to ward off. Kemba Walker is coming off his worst playoff game ever, after shooting just 2-11 in Game Six. Marcus Smart must keep his cool after having to be held back from Toronto players after Wednesday’s game. For Brad Stevens, a loss here could bring his job security into question. Jayson Tatum has scored the sixth most points these playoffs league-wide, a title he will look to maintain.
Add in that the Celtics lost a heartbreaker in Game 3 and that officiating cost them in Game 6’s double-OT thriller, and the entire team has a collective burden on their back. This series could’ve been a sweep if it weren’t for OG Anunoby’s game-winner. If Boston can overcome these obstacles and level the mental playing field, they have a good shout at winning the series.
Boston faces Toronto tonight, Friday, September 11th, at 9:00 PM EST.