The Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Celtics and Raptors has reminded us about everything that’s great about the NBA Playoffs. The two teams slugged it out for seven thrilling games, and it all came to end on Friday night as Boston was able to sneak away with a 92-87 victory and punch its ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals and a date with the Miami Heat.
Like most Game 7s, it was a battle of wills that wasn’t particularly pretty at times and has left both teams with plenty to think about as they head in their respective directions. Here’s what we learned from a hard-fought conclusion to one of the postseason’s best series and an emotional end to the Raptors’ championship defense.
The Raptors Defied Expectations All Season
Toronto seemed destined for an early exit from Orlando, right up until the end of Game 3, when O.G. Anunoby hit a miracle three-pointer at the buzzer and completely changed the complexion of the series. From there, the Raptors went on to force Game 7 and keep their championship hopes alive, however briefly.
It was a continuation of their season-long defiance of expectations, as they’ve proved that the loss of Kawhi Leonard in free agency last summer wouldn’t stop them from staging a serious title defense, fighting their way to a No. 2 seed in the East going into the postseason and coming within one game of a conference finals appearance.
That incredible run came to an end in Game 7 on Friday night, but the Raptors were worth the price of admission at every turn. It was a tough night for just about every Raptor on the roster, as they committed 18 turnovers as a team and shot just 8-for-28 from downtown, but regardless, still somehow found themselves within striking distance right up to the final minute.
Fred VanVleet did his best to keep the Raptors in it, finishing with a team-high 20 points, even as Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam struggled, although both made huge plays down the stretch to give Toronto a chance right up until the final buzzer.
Big Game Fred
20 Pts – 6 Ast – 4 3pm pic.twitter.com/7xwAI68mXR
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) September 12, 2020
The Raptors and their fans have a lot to be proud of, and they’ve given us a lot of joy, entertainment, near-heart attacks the past few weeks here in Orlando.
Jayson Tatum Is A Superstar
There’s been a lot of questions about Kemba Walker’s lackluster play this series, and rightfully so. Walker was ostensibly supposed to be the best player on this Celtics team and their veteran leader, but his shooting woes of late have been alarming. Having said that, Jayson Tatum’s spectacular play is quickly changing the narrative with every passing game. He’s looked like a superstar at various points this postseason, and Game 7 was one of his most outstanding efforts to date.
Jayson Tatum in Game 7 tonight:
He's the second youngest player with 25/10/5 in a Game 7 in NBA history. Kobe was the youngest. pic.twitter.com/2ZwVHxqPob
— StatMuse (@statmuse) September 12, 2020
Tatum is establishing himself as not only the Celtics’ No. 1 option, but as an emerging superstar who is hitting his stride at the exact right time in the postseason.
The East Finals Between The Celtics and Heat Should Be Phenomenal
The Celtics are loaded with talent. Even when their best players struggle, as they did at times this series, it’s always next man up in Boston. Jaylen Brown (21 points, 8 rebounds) and Marcus Smart (16 points, six assists) were both crucial in Game 7 and are key to the Celtics’ success moving forward, especially in gritty games where chaos reigns supreme.
They’re going to need their toughness against a stifling Heat defense that is fresh off pummeling the No. 1 Bucks and feeling well-rested from a quick second-round series. Just watching Jimmy Butler take up the defensive assignment against multiple Celtics wings next series will be worth the price of admission alone, and there should be plenty of sparks along the way.
Still, Walker will continue to face questions until he starts to make his presence felt on a consistent basis for Boston. He’s too talented to keep fading into the background like he’s done at times this series, and if they want any chance of competing for a championship, let alone getting out of the East, they’ll need everyone playing at or near their peak.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals tips off on Tuesday.