LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When two teams play 58 minutes, shoot 201 field goals and another 43 free throws, and are separated, in the end, by three points, who can even say what the difference was? The Raptors beat the Celtics, 125-122, to force a Game 7 in what might have been the best game of the bubble. The margin was by a blip, a rounding error, a foul call, a loose ball … but looming over the Celtics is this uncomfortable reality: The Raptors know how to win these kinds of games, and the Celtics are still figuring it out.
Kyle Lowry played 53 minutes at point guard, scored 33 points, and had one turnover. Why one? Because that’s all he could afford. He pointed out later that OG Anunoby won all three of his jump balls, and the Raptors needed every one of them. None of this guaranteed the Raptors would win. But it guaranteed that they would give themselves their best chance to win. The Celtics did not. They did not do it in Game 4, either.
Consider one sequence in the 59th minute of a 58-minute game: a minor scuffle after the final buzzer. Boston’s Jaylen Brown was not surprised and took some offense. Twice afterward, he referenced what he clearly believed to be unsporting behavior during the game by Toronto coach Nick Nurse and his staff.
“Let’s keep it in check,” Brown said. “Grown men should be able to control themselves, especially coaching staffs.”
Keep it in check? This is the playoffs, not a formal dinner gathering. Nobody cares if you use the wrong fork.
We could break down the film and see exactly which unwritten rules Nurse violated, but that would miss the point entirely. Brown is a heck of a player and one of the most thoughtful guys in the league. This is not the time for thoughtful. It’s a time to grind, to value each possession, to find a way to win by a blip. The Raptors get it and the Celtics still don’t.
There are nights when the Celtics look like they can win the title next month, but there are moments when they look like they just met in the warmup line and are not entirely sure which basket is theirs. It’s strange. It’s not even effort, necessarily. It is uncertainty. The lapses are not so egregious that anybody should give up on them; they are still capable of winning this series and so much more. But how many more flat quarters do they have to play?
“I wish I could tell you,” Kemba Walker said, when he was asked what was wrong. “We’ve been concentrating on it but it’s still happening. We just have to be better.”
Brown seemed to recommend meditation: “Just breathe. Take a deep breath and play basketball. Be the best version of ourselves.”
It is hard to be the best version of yourself against Toronto—harder, perhaps, than against any team that’s left. The Raptors are so skilled and diverse defensively that they force teams to make the wrong choices. Brown took 30 shots, Marcus Smart took 15 and Walker took 11. Walker is too good and too important to score five points in 52 minutes. The Celtics need more, and they need it now.
Fred VanVleet said he and Lowry can talk without speaking. That’s how well they know each other. But Wednesday, VanVleet pushed Lowry to “keep going, keep going”—he understood implicitly that Lowry’s unselfishness might get in the way.
“We need to be our best to beat this team,” Nurse said. “It hasn’t been easy for a lot of reasons.”
One of those reasons is that the Celtics, at their best, are really, really good. They swept the 76ers. They won the first two games of this series and lost Game 3 on a last-second shot. There are nights when Jayson Tatum looks like he is ready to take over the lead. But Tatum made an assortment of questionable decisions in Game 6, and in a double-overtime game, any one of them could have been the difference.
If this were a normal postseason, the Celtics would have to fly to Toronto and win Game 7 on the road. Now they stay on campus and win Game 7 before some virtual Toronto fans. It is not the same, not at all. This isn’t a real road game. The Raptors will show up for Game 7, because they are the champs and they know it. Let’s see whether the Celtics can be the best version of themselves.