For the second time in three years, the Celtics will be in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston edged out a 92–87 win over the Raptors on Friday, finally putting away Toronto to conclude a hard-fought, seven-game series. Jayson Tatum put up a monster statline of 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, corralling a key offensive rebound late in the game that helped clinch the game for the Cs. Fred VanVleet led the Raptors with 20 points, while Kyle Lowry added 16 of his own before fouling out in the fourth quarter. Here are three thoughts on a gritty Game 7.
The Celtics Have a Championship Defense
Boston still has another opponent to face before making it to the Finals, but the Celtics proved against the defending champs their defense is a title worthy one. Every single game was a grind for Toronto, who struggled with Boston’s adaptability on the defensive end. It’s a rarity to see players as young as Tatum and Jaylen Brown—22 and 23, respectively—so polished on both ends of the floor. The Celtics’ flexibility is remarkable. Despite lacking size at center, Boston can match up with practically any lineup. Daniel Thies is one of the hardest working bigs in the league. Marcus Smart is a nightmare for anyone. Brown and Tatum have enough length to match up with every wing thrown their why. And while the individuals are great in their own right, how the Celtics execute as a team makes them one of the most disciplined units left in the postseason.
It’s no surprise, then, that arguably Boston’s two most important plays of the night came on defense. The first was a remarkable block by Smart in transition. While the Celtics were clinging to a two-point lead, Smart saved a turnover from becoming a disaster by rejecting a Norman Powell layup at the rim. The second was a gutsy one-on-one effort from Grant Williams, who after entering the game for the final possessions after Theis fouled out, stonewalled VanVleet at the arc while the guard hunted for a game-tying three-pointer.
The Heat were able to score seemingly with ease against the Bucks, who finished with the best defense in the NBA during the regular season. It seems they’ll have an even tougher task in the next round.
How Will Pascal Siakam Come Back From This?
Every budding star in the NBA goes through growing pains in the playoffs. It can even happen to an MVP like Giannis Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam didn’t have his best series in the second round, and as someone the Raptors expect to be one of the leaders of the team moving forward, he’ll have to learn from this defeat in the offseason.
Siakam’s entire series was forgettable. After averaging a 23-7-4 during the regular season, those numbers dipped to 15-7-3 in the East semis. Nick Nurse rather stubbornly called on Siakam time and time again in the post against the Celtics, but Boston’s bevy of stout defenders (particularly Brown) routinely humbled Siakam. In the winner-take-all Game 7, Siakam scored only 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, with five turnovers to boot. He couldn’t find any easy buckets, and Raptors fans were surely sweating every time he touched the ball in the fourth.
Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol (who also struggled in this series) won’t be around forever. Toronto will be handing over the team to Siakam and (likely) VanVleet in the very near future. In a way, it’s better this happened to Siakam now rather than later. Playoff losses sting differently when you carry more of the responsibility. Siakam’s last shot of the game was a badly missed three that Toronto desperately needed if it wanted any chance of making a miserable comeback. Unfortunately, it was a fitting end for a player who had struggled in every game. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that a series like this one almost always becomes a significant motivator.
Celtics vs. Heat Should Be Exciting
Boston and Miami have a little bit of history. The East Finals will be the teams’ first postseason matchup since 2012, when the Heat beat the Celtics in seven games in the second round—which included a classic LeBron performance in Game 6. Most of the players from those days are long gone, but the bitterness between the fans and organizations is almost certainly very much alive.
The Celtics went 2–1 against the Heat during the regular season, with Miami’s lone win coming during the restart. Of note, Miami won the only game it played against Boston with Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala on the roster, two significant contributors during the playoffs. The Celtics, meanwhile, should likely get a boost some time during the next series with the return of Gordon Hayward.
These teams seem evenly matched. Boston’s defense will be challenged by Miami’s three-point attack, and how well the Celtics defend that aspect of the Heat’s offense will likely go a long way in determining the series’s outcome. Miami was largely successful in slowing down the Bucks, but Boston’s offense is much more balanced, and Kemba Walker especially could be a problem for the Heat’s point guards. If the series is anywhere near as entertaining as the one the Celtics just played, it should be another great entry in the rivalry.