Celtics

Celtics need Brad Stevens to meet challenge vs. Raptors

(Douglas Defelice/Getty Images)

Before this series began, no one thought a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals would come easy for the Celtics and that’s for good reason. The Raptors are the defending champions and finished with a better winning percentage in 2019-20 even after the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. They have the reigning Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse, who has masterfully navigated Toronto back from a 2-0 deficit once already in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. He’s halfway done with doing it again ahead of a crucial Game 5 on Monday night against the Celtics. On the flip side, Brad Stevens and the Celtics find themselves effectively having to beat Toronto five times in seven games now after letting Game 3 slip away in the final half-second. That’s a hurdle the team’s core didn’t bounce back from in the midst of a surprisingly flat Game 4 effort.

The winner of Game 5 in a 2-2 NBA playoff series goes on to win the playoff series 82 percent of the time (albeit none of those series came on a neutral court before this season). With both teams showing most of their cards in this one after having faced each other a whopping eight times already during the 2019-20 season, the focus will turn more than ever to the coaching battle to decide what is now a best-of-three series.

Nick Nurse has bounced back off the mat quite nicely in the past two games after facing a 0-2 deficit. His play call at the end of Game 3 punished Brad Stevens for going to one of his tendencies out of inbounds defense (zone), which put a number of Celtics player in a position to make tough choices in defending the play (Theis, Jaylen Brown). In Game 4, more defensive adjustments continued for the Raptors that allowed them to come out on top. Toronto masterfully avoided keeping their two bigs (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka) out of pick-and-roll defense by playing a mix of matchup zone and simply pre-switching defensive assignments on the Celtics screener to keep Gasol and Ibaka out of the action. These actions took away a lot of the easy chances that Kemba Walker had in this series to score for himself or set up easy chances for his teammates once help came, and Stevens didn’t show a good counter for it in Game 4 as the C’s offense fell flat in the second half, relying on 3-point shots that weren’t falling.

Defensively, Nurse has been on the hunt for ways to grind out points for his offensively-challenged core in the half court. He’s worked hard to target Kemba Walker in the pick-and-roll, generating 1.18 points per possessions according to Second Spectrum on 17 plays when Walker is the screener. Walker is the only real size mismatch on the floor for the C’s in this series (outside of big men against guards,  so forcing Walker into mismatches against Toronto’s bigger wings has been a recipe for points in the last two games. Nurse has also turned Serge Ibaka into largely a 3-point specialist, (10-of-19 from 3-point range) with his pick and pops to punish a Celtics team that’s trying to avoid switching at the point of attack. Living with Ibaka jumpers was an easy choice early in the series knowing the Celtics defense can’t take away everything Toronto wants to do. However, he’s hit enough in this series now that Stevens has to think twice about his strategy.

These will be the areas that will have Stevens and his coaching staff losing sleep over the past two nights. Luckily, the head coach