Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): After the Toronto Raptors fell into an 0-2 hole in their Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, there was definitely a heightened sense of urgency but the prevailing thought was to not panic.
After all, Toronto had been there before - it managed to come back from the exact same deficit against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals by winning four straight games.
Now that the Raptors have tied this series at two games apiece, some of the parallels to last year are hard to ignore.
When Toronto tied things up at 2-2 last year, it felt like the team had cracked the code and figured out Milwaukee in a sense. So I ask: After tying this series, have the Raptors figured the Celtics out?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I'm not convinced they've figured out Boston the way they figured out the Bucks in tying the series last year.
Yes, there are some similarities in a tight Game 3 that altered the series' momentum, followed by a strong Game 4 win, but this year just feels different.
One shot was the difference between being down 3-0 and possibly out of the playoffs at this point. Then the Celtics had their worst 3-point shooting game of their entire season in Game 4, shooting 20.0% from deep - a contest that they were still in despite those shooting woes.
It feels more like the Raptors are just starting to get back to their usual, hard-playing selves while simultaneously knocking down shots they missed through the first two games of the series than it does saying they've cracked Boston's code.
McGregor: Yeah, of all the similarities and differences, I think the biggest difference from last year to this year is how Game 4 was won.
Like, against Milwaukee, Game 4 was an 18-point blowout worthy of us believing something drastic had changed. Like you said, Game 4 of this series was still anyone's game despite an atypical shooting night from Boston.
Conversely, as you pointed out in the preview for Game 5, the Celtics' 3-point output has gradually decreased this series. Do you think there might be something that's clicked defensively for Toronto to make things increasingly difficult?
MORE: Three things to watch in Game 5 between Raptors and Celtics
Irving: I think Boston's Game 4 shooting struggles were a combination of a few different things.
The Raptors, as I said previously, just outright played harder last night than we've seen from them in any other game this series. They were faster on their closeouts. They were quicker on their defensive rotations. They just looked like they wanted it more. And that effort can go a long way in forcing an opposing team out of their rhythm and cause shots to land off the mark.
But speaking of rhythm, it was really hard for the Celtics to find any of the sorts in Game 4 because head coach Nick Nurse was so creative with his team's defences. One possession they're playing man-to-man, next possession it's a 2-3 zone, then it's a box-and-one, next thing you know they're in a 2-1-2 zone.
It's hard for shooters to get comfortable when they're constantly seeing different looks from the defence.
McGregor: See, I'm glad you said that.
As complicated as it may seem/sound, maybe that is the code. Keep this Celtics team guessing and don't allow them to get comfortable. There's definitely a method to Nurse's madness as far as his choices to implement each defensive look in specific circumstances but I don't think the Celtics have figured out what's coming when. Honestly, could you ever?
On the TNT broadcast, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens admitted as much, essentially saying that just when his team had figured something out, they faced a completely different look.
That being said, we're dealing with a head coaching matchup between two tacticians. When people say "it's chess, not checkers," they essentially were describing Nurse and Stevens sitting across from one another at the chessboard with maniacal grins on their faces as they continuously make genius adjustments.
Regardless, I do think Toronto's thrown Boston off a little bit.
Irving: Without a doubt. But it was also uncharacteristic of the Celtics to miss as many shots as they did in Game 4.
While the Raptors defence deserves some credit, I also thought Boston got some great looks that they'd knock down on a typical night. I wouldn't expect them to shoot 20% from 3 again in this series.
McGregor: You've got a point there.
According to NBA.com Stats, the Celtics were 5-for-21 (23.8%) on 3s classified as open or wide open. That's … not very good. That continuing for two (or three) more games is highly unlikely and would be an all-time letdown.
It's amazing to me that these are the same types of numbers that we were breaking down for the Raptors after Games 1 and 2. And now they've found their 3-point stroke to shoot 30-for-84 (35.7%) in Games 3 and 4.
The saying goes that it's a make-or-miss league. Do you think Toronto's recent shooting is sustainable?
|Toronto Raptors||Game||Boston Celtics|
|10-40 (25%)||1||17-39 (43.6%)|
|11-40 (27.5%)||2||15-38 (39.5%)|
|13-40 (32.5%)||3||9-29 (31%)|
|17-44 (38.6%)||4||7-35 (20%)|
|51-164 (31.1%)||TOTAL||48-141 (34%)|
Irving: After Games 1 and 2, I was saying the same thing about the Raptors as I just said about the Celtics. I thought Boston played strong defence, but Toronto was also missing shots that it typically makes.
It was only a matter of time before those shots started falling for the Raptors, as is only a matter of time before those shots start dropping again for the Celtics.
So far, the team that's made more 3-pointers has won each game of this series. I'd expect to see each team place even more of a direct focus on challenging perimeter shots moving forward. But with that being said, I also expect the shot-makers on each team to start converting more consistently.
Do you feel that momentum has completely swung in the Raptors favour heading toward Game 5? Or does this feel more like a clean reset heading into a best two-out-of-three series?
McGregor: Honestly, my answer to that has two parts, so bear with me here.
For one, yes. In my eyes, it's impossible to not have momentum after winning two straight in a postseason series, especially if one win came from one of the more miraculous plays in recent memory.
Now with that in mind, I just think these next three games are going to have a completely different identity from the first four. And, while the momentum will help going into the game, I don't know if it'll truly make a negligible difference once Game 5 gets going.
What say you?
Irving: I couldn't agree more.
The Raptors have built momentum but I expect to see a completely different version of both of these teams in the final three games.
The series has not been pretty at all to this point. These teams are scrapping on defence and their offensive numbers display that. Each team has looked sloppy at times, lackadaisical at times and they've both had to call their own efforts in to question thus far.
I don't expect to see a lack of effort from either of these teams in Games 5, 6 and possibly 7. I don't expect it to be as ugly as its been. I'm looking forward to seeing a head-first clash of the best version of two of the best teams in the NBA.
McGregor: To me, the bottom line is this: Although it's easy to draw that one-for-one comparison to last year, it's impossible to say anyone has cracked any kind of code because of how different each of these games - and wins - have been.
Just as you could argue the C's would be up 3-1 if it weren't for OG, you could argue the Raps would be up 3-1 if it weren't for Marcus "Stephen Curry" Smart. There's no code for that.
And I'm just gonna say it: The biggest difference between last year's Milwaukee team in the ECF and this year's Boston's team is that its led by a coach in Stevens who's gonna make adjustments on the fly. Big ones at that.
So just when Toronto might think it has something figured out, it could see a completely different look. And the same could be said for Nurse adjusting to anything thrown his way, too.
In a way, it feels a little lazy but I truly believe that as evenly as these teams are matched, it's anyone's series for the taking now.
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