LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—There comes a moment in most NBA playoff series where the better team establishes itself, and the Boston Celtics put this one off as long as they could. Monday, they showed why they are the Toronto Raptors’ superior—and, possibly, their successor.
Game 5 of this series will go in the book as Celtics 111, Raptors 89, to take a 3–2 series lead, but it seemed more like an early-round knockout punch. Jayson Tatum did not shoot well, but it didn’t matter. Gordon Hayward just arrived on campus for his quarantine, but he wasn’t needed. The Raptors’ main advantage in this series was their championship mettle. The Celtics countered it with exceptional energy—“you could feel that from the get-go,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said—and it felt like one of those games where it didn’t really matter who scored for the Celtics, because you knew somebody would. When Kemba Walker ended the first half by weaving his way to the net for a bucket, the Celtics led 62–35.
There would be no last-second Raptors heroics, like in Game 3, and no game-long Celtics lethargy, like in Game 4. This was just an old-fashioned Game 5; both teams know each other’s tricks by now, and the Celtics have more of them.
“You can’t go through the playoffs without some heartbreak,” Stevens said. “You can’t go through the playoffs without some bad things happening.”
Survive the heartbreak, and you can move on. The Celtics need one win to do so. Beyond that looms the Miami Heat, and then a probable NBA Finals matchup against one of the favorites from L.A., and yes, we are getting way ahead of ourselves, and I apologize. I had some time on my hands during the second half.
Growth in the NBA is rarely linear. The Celtics team that pushed LeBron James’s Cavaliers to the brink two years ago were supposed to contend for a title last year with a healthy Kyrie Irving. We all know what happened: bad chemistry, disappointing result. There are many reasons the Celtics are better now—Tatum and Jaylen Brown are much-improved, Walker fits like Irving never did—but the point is, they are better. This is obviously a weird postseason. It should not shock anybody if we get a surprising champion.
Of course, we got a surprising champion last year, too. Then Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for L.A., and in his absence, the Raptors did just about everything you could ask of them this year except develop a vaccine. They still have the toughness and excellent coaching that brought them a title. They just don’t have Kawhi. For all the talk about how they could win a title, and all the moments when they looked the part, they now need to beat the better team twice just to advance.
This series seems over, because of plays like this one: Up 39-25, Marcus Smart ripped the ball out of Kyle Lowry’s hands on a break, stayed inbounds, and passed it to a teammate. Smart has been making plays like that since college, but on this night, it felt completely in line with how his team was playing. The Celtics seemed determined to avoid lulls—Stevens called a timeout after the Raptors cut it to 18–7.
Brown, the best player on the floor, said the focus for Game 5 was on keeping it simple: “Hit singles.” Less thinking might have led to more energy, and in basketball, more energy plus more talent usually equals more points.
Toronto is not going to fold. Lowry won’t allow it. And if the Celtics assume this is over, they will have to deal with an anything-can-happen Game 7. But all the Celtics have to do now is what they have done already. They know it. The Raptors probably know it, too.