After Three Straight Tight Games, Celtics and Raptors Series Even at 2 — Celtics Shooting Under the Microscope

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In the modern NBA, shooting is more important than ever. Step-back threes have become the barometer for individual offensive stardom. Consistent 30–35-footers by certain shooters have broken defenses. And the NBA’s green-light has allowed 23 year-olds to dominate a playoff game. If you’ve watched the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, you witnessed Luka Doncic (21), Donavan Mitchell and Jamal Murray (both 23) setting the NBA world on fire with dazzling offense.

Jayson Tatum (21) and Jaylen Brown (23) are two of the three active offensive weapons on the Boston Celtics current playoff roster. The others are Kemba Walker (29) and Gordon Hayward (out with an injured ankle — 30). The Celtics offense relies on Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum bending defenses with their one-on-one prowess. Jaylen Brown’s development from transition finisher, corner 3-maker, and off-ball cutter into overall scorer with better ball-handling and creativity has propelled the Celtics offense to new heights. Kemba’s willingness to step back and let Tatum run the show has enabled Tatum’s confidence to soar. Gordon Hayward’s flexibility (mid-range scoring, catch-and-shoot and play-making) kept the second unit’s offense afloat. That balanced offense (four players over 17 points per game) is now facing the NBA’s 2nd-best, and probably most-balanced defense (Toronto finished behind only Milwaukee in defensive rating).

Without Hayward, the Celtics are missing that third/fourth option, which adds pressure all around. Each open three is that much more critical. There’s less margin for error. Going into the series, I expected that all three of the Celtics offensive stars would need to play well for the team to succeed on the offensive end. The Raptors defense contained Tatum during the regular season, which meant that Kemba and Jaylen would have to carry heavier loads, especially without Hayward.

It’s funny how first impressions impact expectations. This was supposed to be a very close series. It was one NBA obsessives have been eyeing since the Bucks had firmly established the top seed in late January. But the first quarter did not go according to the consensus expectations.

Four minutes into the game, the Celtics were up 11–3, and none of those points came from Tatum or Kemba. At the end of the first, the Celtics had jumped ahead 39–23.

Fifteen of those 39 points came from three-pointers by Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Brad Wanamaker — shots that Nick Nurse would have game planned to allow — lower percentage shots than most Kemba or Tatum-led possessions. Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s heart and soul, committed three jittery turnovers. Pascal Siakam was getting bottled up by Jaylen Brown immediately. Everything went right for Boston, and everything went wrong for the Raptors.

Evenly Matched

Since that quarter, there have been 15 more played in this series. Twelve of those fifteen quarters have ended with the two teams within 6 points of each other. In other words — it’s been a very even first four games — as expected. Games 2, 3 and 4 all came down to the last few minutes, and I’d imagine the same will be true for 5, 6 and (likely) 7.

Jaylen Brown’s shooting

Since that quarter, Jaylen Brown’s long-range shooting has followed a pattern:

Game 1 (2nd-4th): 1–6 from deep

Game 2 1st half, 3–4 from deep; 2nd half, 0–4

Game 3 1st half, 0–1; 2nd half, 0–1 (0–2 for game)

Game 4 1st half, 0–4, 2nd half 0–5, then made his last 2, (2–11 for game)

Marcus Smart’s shooting has been similarly streaky.

Game 1: 5–9 from deep overall

Game 2: 1–6, until his memorable torrid stretch (5 3s in 5 min) early in the 4th quarter.

Game 3: 2–9

Game 4: 1–6.

***

Focusing too much on the shooting of Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart is to forget how valuable their defense is. Both play with such tenacity and intelligence. Both make hustle plays that lead to easier transition points. Both feed off the energy of crowds, maybe more than most. I wonder how the absence of crowds impacts all of these players in the NBA Playoff bubble. For all the annoyances and distractions that the fans can create, the energy of an NBA playoff game is palpable. It makes logical sense that “high-energy” players thrive even more in these environments.

The Raptors perimeter defense deserves high praise for the way they’ve played since that long-ago first quarter of the series. Players don’t miss shots in a vacuum. The energy Jaylen and Marcus have been forced to expend on defense has no doubt impacted their end-of-game shooting. With games every other day in these playoffs, the minutes might be adding up now. This is the playoff crucible.

Meanwhile, Toronto guards Fred Van Vleet and Kyle Lowry have been similarly up-and-down from deep.

Combined, Game 1: 3 of 16

Combined, Game 2: 3 of 19

Combined, Game 3: 7 of 21

Combined, Game 4: 9 of 21

Without Kawhi Leonard as the focal point of their offense, the burden on Lowry and Van Vleet is now enormous. Siakam’s strengths are in the open-court, and he’s been hampered by Jaylen’s defense.

The series is even at 2. Celtics fans are hoping that the Celtics long-range accuracy comes back in Game 5. If not, it will take an immense defensive effort to advance to the East Finals against the suddenly dominant Miami Heat.

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