Following their loss to the Toronto Raptors in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, the Boston Celtics returned home and worked to refine their team chemistry. A year later, they’ve developed two of the league’s biggest rising stars in small forward Jayson Tatum and shooting guard Jaylen Brown, while additionally adding veteran point guard Kemba Walkers into the mix. With a depth of talent including forward Gordon Hayward and defensive star Marcus Smart, the Celtics found themselves up against the Raptors once more this season, this time vying for a place in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat.
On paper, this series looked to be the most evenly matched series of the playoffs. The Raptors finished the regular season with a commanding 0.736 win percentage and the No. 2 seed. After winning the NBA Finals last year and watching star forward Kawhi Leonard depart for greener pastures in the offseason, many thought that the Raptors would lose some of their chemistry and not have a deep playoff run –– if one at all. Yet Toronto’s roster quietly put together a strong season, as star point guard Kyle Lowry, All-Star power forward Pascal Siakam and shooting guard Fred VanVleet led the Raptors all season and proved they didn’t need Leonard to be a championship-caliber squad. The Celtics, meanwhile, also had a successful regular season, ending with a 0.667 win percentage and securing the conference’s No. 4 seed. Tatum has paved the way for the Celtics, while the infusion of Walker has paid dividends for his and Brown’s development, allowing Boston to play their best team basketball since the days of Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.
Boston stole the show in game one, with six players scoring double-digit points en route to a 112-94 win. Fueling the win for the Celtics were first-team defensive players Smart and Tatum, who each dropped over 20 points.
During game two the Raptors made some helpful adjustments forcing a closer game. Walker struggled to score early in the contest, only making one of his first 11 shots. Although Walker underperformed, Tatum balled out, playing 42 minutes and dropping 34 points while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. Though Boston veered from their blueprint of team basketball, one of their young stars stepped up to bail the team out when they needed him to.
Toronto responded well in a crucial game three. Lowry and VanVleet stole the show in scoring, with the former putting up 31 and the latter contributing 25. With the backcourt humming, Siakam and company played smart defense and rotated the ball around on offense in the frontcourt to give their shooters as many opportunities as possible. Despite the astounding efforts from both Lowry and VanVleet, the Raptors were still down by 2 points with less than a second to play in the contest. A smart inbound pass from Lowry to small forward Ogugua Anunoby left just enough time for the catch and shoot 3-pointer, just over an outstretched hand of Brown, securing the 1-point victory in the closing moments of the contest.
The Raptors, feeling the hum of their offense coming out of game three, rode their momentum to secure back to back victories, stifling the Celtics offense in game four in a 100-93 victory.
Head coach Brad Stevens’ squad came out to ball in game five following their two previous defeats, playing some of the best basketball they played all season. They held the Raptors to a mere 13 points in the first quarter and continued to ride out their sizable lead until the final buzzer sounded on their 111-89 win.
Game six was the most strenuous of the series, as neither team could manage to keep a substantial lead for any period of time. Toronto moved the ball efficiently and had six players with double-digit points and 33 points from Lowry. Due to intense defensive play, the game went into overtime, but both squads were only able to put up 8 points each in the first overtime period, forcing a second overtime. Lowry and VanVleet’s long-range prowess prevailed over a tired Celtics squad, as the Raptors closed out the game 125-122, forcing a game seven.
In game seven, the strong defensive trend from both squads continued, with the score at 72-71 entering the fourth quarter. With their postseason hopes on the line, both teams played and with intensity and extreme physicality at both ends of the court. The young tandem of Tatum and Brown prevailed as the more clutch duo, closing out the game 92-87 to move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
After losing Leonard in the offseason, the Raptors were predicted to struggle to even make the playoffs, yet still grabbed the No. 2 seed and went down with a strong fight. This will be the third time in four years the Celtics have made the Eastern Conference finals, but this year they hope to finally make it over the hump and into the championship series.