Celtics

Celtics a Contender Through First Six Playoff Games

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The Toronto Raptors came into the second round of the 2020 playoffs third in opposing teams’ points per game. They held their opponents to an average of 105.8 points per game and allowed the Brooklyn Nets to shoot just 39.7% from the floor. The Boston Celtics, however, have proved to be trouble for the defending champions, defeating them in three of the four regular-season games with an average margin of +7. The most recent matchup came in Boston’s fifth seeding game, a 122-100 win. Much like game one of this series, the Celtics led from start to finish and were led by Jaylen Brown, who had 20 points.

The Celtics were also coming off of their own sweep against the Philadelphia 76ers. Was the Raptors defense in the first round great? Yes. However, it still didn’t measure up to how the Celtics played in the opening round. Boston ranked first in opponents points (100.5 points per game), first in opponents’ field goal percentage (39.6%), and first in opponents three-point percentage, holding Philly to just 26.4% from deep.

Many wanted a heavyweight fight, but were disappointed after a wire-to-wire 112-94 Celtics victory in game one. With significant contributions from many players, the C’s were able to keep the Raptors‘ stars in check. Holding Pascal Siakam to 13 points on 31.3% shooting is sure to give your team a good chance to win. And, when you can limit Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry to a combined 28.6% shooting, the Raptors have few players they can use offensively.

Game Two Triumph

Game two proved to be much more of what we were expecting. It was a relatively low-scoring game that came down to some substantial performances in the fourth quarter. In a game that saw 19 lead changes, it would take players to make clutch plays to secure the victory. With Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker leading the way with a combined 27 points on 81.8% shooting and 75.0% from three, the Celtics erased the deficit and came back to win 102-99. Boston held Toronto to just 23.8% shooting for the game.

Winning a close game can go a long way in building confidence, especially when it comes against the reigning NBA champions. The team is showing true continuity on both offense and defense. The Celtics have seen some great individual performances from both likely, and unlikely players. Let’s see how the key members of this roster have fared so far through these playoffs.

Jayson Tatum Looking Strong

Tatum came into this second-round series after a stellar first round. Tatum took advantage of matchups against a younger Matisse Thybulle and a smaller Josh Richardson. He became the youngest Celtic to have back-to-back playoff games scoring 30+ points, and led the team in field goals made, averaging 27.0 points on 48.7 percent shooting.

The question coming into this second-round series was: would Jayson Tatum hit contested shots against the stout Raptors defense? He answered with thunderous authority. Though he had just two points in the opening quarter of game one against the Raptors, he finished with 21 points on 50.0% shooting. Yes, game one was a wire-to-wire victory for the Celtics. Still, staying efficient against the reigning NBA champions can instill the confidence.

The Raptors went with OG Anunoby as the primary defender on Tatum. Anunoby is a big and fast player that can challenge the taller Tatum on his jump shot and at the rim. Tatum took advantage of this matchup, shooting 60% against OG. The Celtics lead from start to finish, but Boston needed Tatum’s services in game one to get the 2-0 series lead.

Not Just A Scorer

Game 2 required more from the Boston star in terms of playmaking. The close game allowed Tatum to show that he isn’t just a scorer. He led the team with six assists in the game and was quick and decisive. The Raptors have been sending two people to double him to force a pass and make someone else beat them. Going into the fourth quarter with a deficit, you would think his scoring would bring the team back. However, his ability to dish out four assists allowed other players to step up and hit significant shots.

Drawing Contact

Another key for Tatum this game was his ability to attack the rim and draw contact. He shot and made a game-high 14 free throws. His ability to drive to the basket and put pressure on the defense can’t be understated. When the defense collapses, he can either finish at the rim for a possible and-one play or throw it out to a wide-open teammate. Jayson finished with a team-high 34 points while knocking in four of his seven threes.

This year, the difference in Tatum’s game is he’s now shooting the three getting to the free-throw line more often. He has shot an efficient 44.3% from three through the first six games of the playoffs and is 82.5% at the charity stripe. His ability to come off the pick-and-roll and knock down consistent threes, his improved step back and improved finishing opens up plenty of opportunities for Walker and Brown.

Stat: Tatum has had a positive +/- in every game of the restart except the first contest against Milwaukee (-13), and he is third among all players in the playoffs with nine blocks.

Cardiac Kemba Proving He’s Got What It Takes

The reemergence of a healthy Walker is a positive sign for the C’s. Coming into the bubble, there were some concerns about a left knee injury. It was no bother to him, though, as he put in a superb performance, averaging 24.3 points on 16.8 shots per game during the first round.

Game one saw Walker in an unprecedented place. During his first eight seasons with Charlotte, they never made it past the first round. The stage didn’t prove too big for him, however, as he jumped out to a quick start with seven points in the first quarter. Like Tatum, Boston didn’t ask him to carry the team alone, but he did an excellent job picking and choosing when he attacked. He finished the game with 21 points while shooting 57.1% on his threes. What cannot be overlooked is that he also had ten assists in the game.

Quickest Guy On The Floor

Being the quickest guy on the floor most of the time, he can break down defenders off the dribble and get to his spots. There, he can stop and pop for the jump shot or dish to a wide-open teammate when the defense has to slide to help stop the ball. His capability to attack and create while not turning the ball over (1.3 TO/game through the playoffs) is a tremendous asset, especially if another star has an off night.

Kemba struggled early in the second game of this series, but found his way down the stretch. After starting a dismal 2/14 from the floor and 0/7 from three through the first three quarters, he turned it on. In the fourth, he scored 11 points while making all of his shots. The key for Kemba is that he stayed aggressive. In a quarter where Tatum and Brown combined for 1/7 from the floor, Walkers’ scoring ability willed the C’s to a victory. With the defense focusing on multiple offensive threats, Kemba has free reign to attack open space and use his quickness to create space for open jump shots. There is nothing like getting some déjà vu watching him hit a step-back dagger to seal a win.

Stat: He leads the team through the playoffs with 29 total assists and is second on the team scoring 22 points per game.

Brown Bounces Back To Finish With Strong Series

Jaylen Brown was the third head of the attack in the first series, averaging 21.5 points on 45% on field goals while shooting 34.5% from three. However, his shooting woes leaked into the second round.

He started strong as well, making two of his first three threes in the first quarter. Unfortunately, he cooled off to finish just 3/9 from three. In a game where the Celtics had six players score 10+ points, his off-shooting night was balanced by his impact in other areas. He grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. His defense was superb, holding his match-ups to just 33.3% shooting and causing three turnovers. His ability to guard bigger players and switch onto smaller guards cannot be undervalued. While being the primary defender, he held Anunoby and Siakam to a combined eight points, while holding the combination of VanVleet and Lowry scoreless. Having a player that can take away top offensive threats is a major component for a team with championship aspirations.

Game Two Extension

Game two saw Brown’s shooting extend beyond the first quarter. He was 4/6 from the floor (3/4 from three) through the first half, and he hit all three of his free throw attempts, finishing with 14 points. His second half was a stark contrast. He went one for seven from the floor, missing all four treys. Much like game one, Brown impacted the game in other ways. He finished second on the team in rebounding (eight) and lead the team in steals with three. Playing with other offensive threats allows Brown to go largely unnoticed, but his shooting needs to improve if the Celtics are going to make a deep playoff run.

An area where he has struggled is off the dribble, where he has seen his regular-season average of 37.9% drop to 25% in the playoffs. He’ll need to continue to be aggressive and look for his shot because if he can get hot and be consistent, this team becomes even more dangerous. Just as the great Michael Jordan says, “The ceiling is the roof.”

Stat: Brown is tied for the team lead for steals in the playoffs with seven.

Marcus Smart The Unlikely Hero in Game Two

With Gordon Hayward out for a while with an ankle injury, Marcus Smart stepped into the starting role as the fifth option. Smart led the team with six steals against the 76ers but needed to be more consistent on offense to maximize his impact. He only averaged 8.5 points, while shooting 33.3% from the floor and 13.3% from three during the sweep. Still, being the fourth option, you take what production you can get.

After going a combined 2/12 from three in the first round, Smart erupted from distance in game one, knocking down five-of-nine attempts from distance. Not known as a three-point shooter (31.8% career average), his production was a substantial lift for a team that only had three players average more than eight points in the first round. With the Raptors a talented defensive team (4th in the league in net rating), it was pivotal that someone step up to contribute other than the three stars.

He also contributed six rebounds and four assists, though he did have five turnovers. Smart’s offense comes as a bonus along with his stellar defense. He held the Raptors to a combined nine points while he was the primary on-ball defender. Boston perfectly foils Toronto’s guards’ ability to create and run the offense. Smart can make VanVleet and Lowry uncomfortable, as the duo combined for just 28 points.

Hot Shooting

Brown’s hot shooting continued in game two as he made the second-most threes in a playoff game in his career (six). However, a deeper dive into that number shows his fourth-quarter prowess, knocking down five of his six threes in the period. The Celtics came into the quarter with an eight-point deficit. With Kemba and Jaylen struggling to find their rhythm offensively, it’s easy to argue that Smart won the game. He finished the quarter with 16 points and was +11 while on the floor. His ability to defend already makes him a valuable asset for this team, allowing the stars to take an easier assignment. If he can continue to be efficient shooting the ball, it’s hard to find a team that will slow all of the Celtics’ offensive threats.

Stat: Games one and two of the second round marked the first time in Smarts’ career he made five+ three-point attempts in back-to-back to back playoff games.

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Timelord Takeover

The big tandem of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter averaged just 14 points and 9.8 rebounds in the first round. Theis did a decent job guarding Joel Embiid. However, it was hardly anything to brag about after Embiid averaged 30 points and 9.5 rebounds on 46.3% from the floor. There were times where Joel was getting to the rim at will, and they needed to shore up the paint against the Raptors, who are fifth in points in the paint in the playoffs.

Theis assumed his normal starting role and was extremely effective on the boards in game one, leading the team with 15 rebounds. He also played excellent defense on Marc Gasol, holding him to just five points on 33.3% shooting as the primary defender. With Theis undersized at 6-foot-8, he plays a key role in defending opposing big men. Game two also saw Theis lead the team in rebounding with nine and with three blocks. Theis has been a pleasant surprise, as he doesn’t force anything on offense and plays his role perfectly. He does an excellent job of being patient and waiting for the offense to come to him. Picking and choosing when he takes a shot, and continuing to knock down his improved three-pointer could prove crucial down the stretch as Boston advances.

Williams Bandwagon

Those of you that know me well have known that I have been on the Robert Williams bandwagon for some time now. Smart is also complimentary.

The second-year man out of Texas A&M got the first nod from coach Brad Stevens to replace Theis in game one. He did not disappoint. He made all five of his shots while grabbing five rebounds, dishing two assists, and recording two blocks in just 18:41 of game time. Williams followed up with another efficient performance in game two, shooting 100% on five shots. His finishes at the rim off alley-oops are impressive. Also notable is on the defensive end where he spikes shots away like a volleyball player. Stevens could not have asked for more from his young budding center.

Development Sped Up

The experience he is gaining is so valuable, and playing against such stout competition will only speed up his development. Boston will likely need him to continue his contributions though. If the Celtics move on, they will play either the Milwaukee Bucks or Miami Heat. They roster many big and athletic centers that could give Kanter trouble. Look for Williams’ role to continue to expand.

Theis Stat: His 15 rebounds in game one tie his career-high, set back on February 29th in a one-point home loss to the Rockets.

Williams Stat: Games one and two of the second round marks the first time in Williams’s career he has played 17+ minutes in back to back games.

https://twitter.com/celtics/status/1300919763023966208?s=20

Brad Stevens Likely To Keep Bench Short

Kanter, who played 14+ minutes in three of the four first-round games, hasn’t seen any action in second-round games. Brad Wanamaker has seen 37 minutes through two games but has scored just seven points while grabbing eight rebounds. Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have played 33 and 27 minutes total, respectively. They play similar roles with their big bodies, and they can defend forwards and smaller centers. They haven’t contributed much on offense, however, scoring just a combined five points.

Stevens will likely keep the rotation short, as his stars are young and have the ability to play extended minutes. Always having a combination of Tatum/Walker/Brown/Smart on the floor at all times ensures that the team has both a scorer and someone to run the offense through. Not to mention that their defensive continuity can put opposing teams in a pickle.

Outlook

The Raptors are a championship team, even without their finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. They will not quit, as they returned from an 0-2 deficit last year in the Eastern Conference Finals. Thankfully, their chances are fading. With the Celtics getting more production from their role players, the Raptors are having a hard time keeping up. If Toronto is going to turn this around, it needs Siakam to go back to being an All-Star caliber player. He’s averaged just 17.8 points per game since the restart, down from his 23.6 average prior. The Celtics won’t let their defense up, though. The Toronto stars will need to find ways to create more open looks should they want to get back into this.

Continue Strategy

Boston needs to continue doing what they are doing: moving the ball, attacking the rim, and knocking down open threes off dribble drives. When they get everyone involved, they are an extremely dangerous team. Consider they have three players that could go off for 25+ points on any given night, Smart is now red-hot from deep. This shooting puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses. The Celtics have quietly played the small-ball game better than Houston, with Enes Kanter, at 6’10,” Boston’s tallest player. However, what makes them different is that they don’t live and die by the three and can win a game in many different fashions.

My prediction is that Toronto steals a game or two, but the Celtics still come out on top. Giving them a game seems generous, but saying the defending champs will get swept is a stretch. They are an experienced team and will continue to fight until the final horn of the series. Stevens is a master at making adjustments from game to game. He will take what Toronto did defensively and use it to exploit matchups going forward. If the Celtics can just continue to do what they’ve done through this series’s first two games, they should have no problem moving on the Eastern Conference Finals.

Follow us on Twitter @CelticsLead for the latest Celtics news and insight.

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About Ryan Sieve

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio but currently residing in Cincinnati / Lifelong basketball fan / Enjoys watching and playing sports as well as an avid video game player

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