BOSTON — Mike Muscala heard from Jaylen Brown earlier in the game when he hesitated to shoot. The rest night for the Celtics thrust both players up the lineup into starting and playmaking roles, respectively, demanding assertive decisions against a long, active and disruptive Raptors defense Brown pointed out as a problem for the Celtics earlier in the year.
“It’s an unorthodox kind of team to play against,” Brown said, describing the Magic in January. “They’ve got that Toronto kind of feel, but even longer, kind of like how Cleveland was maybe last year where they played just a lot of bigs and a lot of length, can cover ground any time you get to the basket, long arms make those passes tough. They get a lot of deflections.”
Grouping those teams together that play Boston tough, Brown knew the Raptors best from their 2020 seven-game semifinal series where the Celtics struggled to make plays against their defense and put Toronto away. Ime Udoka praised the randomness of the Raptors’ defensive scheme last year, how often they shift between coverages. On Wednesday, they dropped early and switched late, and Brown found an opportunity with the Raptors caught between a switch and showing help at the rim. Muscala sat open and Brown slipped a pass over Scottie Barnes’ head to secure a six-point lead with under three minutes remaining in Boston’s 97-93 win.
Brown scored 25 points with 11 rebounds and five assists, working through four turnovers and five Toronto blocks on him, shooting 12-for-29 and shaking off old Raptors tactics that once limited him and the Celtics. Malcolm Brogdon helped, scoring 29 points on 10-for-16 to all but end the sixth man of the year discussion. His decisive drives, pair of pull-up threes and a feed to Derrick White ahead of the defense vaulted the Celtics past Toronto’s short attempt to zone Boston and ahead by 12 at halftime. Joe Mazzulla praised his defensive growth on a night where the Celtics sat Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, and held the Raptors to 41.1% shooting and six three-pointers.
“I thought in the first half they were in drop and (Brown) got some really good looks and continued to shoot them,” Mazzulla said. “They did some more switching in the second half, and he was able to get to his spot. He’s able to get to his spot and shoot the mid-range two, which I think is necessary in late game at times. He has the ability to do that and then like you saw with the pass with Mike, he’s just playing with a lot of poise and patience and taking what the defense gives him.”
O.G. Anunoby, an All-Defense candidate this season, stumbled trying to stop Brown on a left-handed drive before halftime, who blew up a play and forced a shot clock violation plays later thriving in his comfortable isolation defense role. He threw Robert Williams III one of his shot-fake passes against a Raptors pick-and-roll trap, while he found two assists on entry passes to White and Brogdon. When Toronto showed him three bodies in the paint, he passed to the corner. Those same tactics also turned him and the Celtics over 15 times, twice in the third quarter to empower a 14 straight points from Pascal Siakam in the third that cut Boston’s lead to 74-72. Brogdon snuck the Celtics out of the quarter with five straight points.
Fred VanVleet briefly awoke from a bad night to hit a three in the fourth quarter and keep Toronto within one possession after Barnes blocked Brown. Brogdon and Brown answered by jumping into a two-man game, Brown tossing the ball behind his back to Brogdon, who drove and dropped-off a pass to Muscala along the baseline for a free throw. Brown closed the game with a pull-up leaner, answering Siakam’s final mid-range make, his pass to Muscala in a corner, a breakout finish and driving layup that proved too much for Toronto to overcome with scheme. They fell to the Celtics for a third straight time this season, all of the games decided by six points or fewer.
“(We’ve) had to evolve because they continue to evolve in their skill sets and what they’re doing,” Nurse said pre-game. “Personnel, etc … three years ago, you’ve got a plan, but two years ago, it’s different and this year, it’ll be different even than it was earlier in the season. Tonight as well, and it’s a super big challenge as you know. They’re so good in so many areas, offensively, they’ll beat you in transition, they’re really good from the perimeter, got so many guys that can take it off the bounce to the front of the rim and score. They’ve got bigs that can shoot, then they’ve got some guys that they can just give the ball to and say you know, step back and hit a three.”
“We’ve got some kind of depth and that usually enables us to move those guys around a little bit, switch, we don’t really care about the switching and who’s matched up on who some. It gives us a chance sometimes to put some size on some what you would call ‘bigger guards’ that usually take advantage of guys they’re bigger than, but we can keep some size on them too. There’s a lot going on. It’s a tremendous challenge. You’ve gotta stay with it, you’ve gotta really play it for the whole game, you’ve gotta not get discouraged, because you know there’s gonna be a stretch where those guys will make three or four really tough threes on you, and you’ve just gotta take it.”
- Wednesday’s win clinched the No. 2 seed for Boston, with the Bucks’ win over Chicago clinching the No. 1 seed for them. The Heat clinch No. 7, at worst, with a win against Philadelphia on Friday. The Hawks’ magic number also moved to one for No. 8 with their win over Washington. They can secure a spot, likely against Miami, with a win over Philadelphia on Friday OR a Raptors loss to Boston on Friday, with the 7-vs.-8 play in game deciding the Celtics’ first round opponent. Toronto needs two wins over Boston and Milwaukee and Atlanta losses to the 76ers and Celtics, on Sunday, to return to the 7-8 picture, since the Hawks own a tiebreaker against them. Boston can help prevent a Raptors appearance in round one.
- Rest will take priority for the Celtics in their final two games, but they’ll also balance getting players some live repetitions nearly one week before the first round begins on Apr. 15, with Boston’s opener possibly falling as late as Sunday, Apr. 16 after their regular season finale on Apr. 9 and the play-in tournament.
- One area where Mazzulla will continue to juggle difficult decisions up to and through playoff time comes at the guard position. Brogdon’s brilliant night improved him to scoring 16.3 PPG with 4.3 RPG and 3.8 APG on 47% FG, hitting 38.3% from three, over his last 15 games in fewer minutes than White and Smart played. Mazzulla described an even allotment of minutes between the trio, but usually one player needs to sit in crunch time. Brogdon described a sometimes difficult transition to sixth man he accepted and embraced upon arrival in Boston, with Brad Stevens and the front office handing it to him immediately.
- “I have no clue. This season I had no clue how it would evolve. You have three starters vying for two positions at the end of the day. I think game-by-game, it’s gonna change like it has throughout the season, I expect it to be that way, and whoever has it going, whoever is in the game while there are big runs, that’s really who should be on the floor,” Brogdon told CLNS Media on Wednesday. Brogdon played 27 minutes in Philadelphia the night before, Smart 30 and White 40 with Brogdon sitting the final seven minutes.
- The same dilemma emerged in the second half in the front court with the continued offensive struggles of Grant Williams, who finished 1-for-5 with two points in 18 minutes against Toronto. Blake Griffin played again as a contender for supplementary front court playoff minutes Williams could fall behind Brown, Tatum and the two starting caliber big men for already in a tight rotation. Williams blocked two early shots on Wednesday, set up Brogdon for three late in the third quarter with an offensive rebound and snuck past Precious Achiuwa to score following an up-fake in the fourth. Other hesitations led to misses, and even an air-ball in the final frame, while his pair of free throw misses in the third failed to halt the Raptors 13-4 run. He’s averaging 7.9 PPG on 47.7% FG over his last 15 games, hitting 40% from three.
- Griffin blocked Jakob Poetl in the third quarter, grabbed five rebounds and served a pair of assists as his productive minutes continue to rack up late in the season. He played admirably in Philadelphia the night before, and looks like the favorite to fit a variety of playoff matchups in secondary center minutes behind Horford and Williams III. Shot-making remains his biggest limitation, only attempting and hitting one.