Why that stunning Game 3 loss can be a good thing, and other Celtics thoughts

Jayson Tatum didn't shoot well in Game 3, but he put on an impressive passing display.

The Raptors celebrate after the winning shot fell.
The Raptors celebrate after the winning shot fell. –MARK J. TERRILL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Three thoughts on the Celtics-Raptors series while trying to convince myself there’s no such thing as game-to-game momentum …

1. Anyone who paid attention to the post-Kawhi Leonard Raptors this year was well aware before Thursday night that they retained the heart of a champion even if the best player from their championship team departed for Los Angeles. (Thank goodness, again, that Leonard chose the Clippers over the presumed favorite, the Lakers.) But if anyone did forget, Toronto’s victory in Game 3 on OG Anunoby’s 3-pointer with a half-second remaining should serve as a reminder.

The Celtics are the more talented team. They’re the better team. But they are not the more tested team, and the Raptors — fearless, poised in the big moment, steely in fortitude, and loaded with savvy tricks — are feeling pretty good about themselves right now after showing what they are made of.

You know what, though? This is good for the Celtics. It is. They need this if they’re going to become everything they can be. They got a lesson in not letting down their guard, in what happens when you fail to communicate, even for half a second. They picked up a battle scar, and probably a necessary one. Bouncing a defending champion, even one diminished since its title run, should not be easy. Now, it won’t be.

The Celtics have made so much progress this season toward becoming a truly excellent team. This is a part of that process. I can’t help but think how last year’s discontented, ill-fitting, selfish collection of players would have handled it — with sunken shoulders and pointed fingers, most likely.

I can’t wait to see how this team — with a mature Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and a true leader in Kemba Walker — does. This is their test. I trust they’ve done the homework and learned the lesson.

2. My faith in Tatum now as an elite scorer is such that I fully expected him to take over the final couple of minutes despite a subpar shooting game (5 for 18 from the field, just one 3-pointer). That didn’t happen — the Raptors’ zone in the third quarter thwarted his usually nifty slashes to the basket — but he did remind us in another way of how much he has improved and evolved as an offensive player just this season.

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I thought it was the best passing game he’s ever had.

Tatum dealt out six assists, the same number he had in the Game 2 win, but at least three of his passes were of the next-level variety:

  • A lob on the move to Daniel Theis to give the Celtics a 40-37 lead with 6 minutes 18 seconds left in the first half.
  • Another sweet redirection to Theis to put the Celtics up 97-95 with 3:36 left in the game.
  • And a dart to Jaylen Brown for a 101-97 lead with 1:41 left.

We focus on his scoring and his much-improved defense, but don’t sleep on Tatum’s increasingly adept playmaking.

3. One aspect of this team that I’ve come to appreciate is how well Marcus Smart and Walker’s skills complement each other in the backcourt.

Smart is a fearless, ferocious defender who can guard anyone and takes the tougher matchup, while Walker, though small, never shies from contact or a challenge. Walker is the better ballhandler, especially when it comes to creating his own shot off his trademark crossover, but Smart is a vastly underrated playmaker who allows Walker to play off the ball and weave through screens to get open.

Walker was otherworldly Thursday night, scoring 17 points in the first quarter, hitting threes in the final seconds of each of the first two quarters, and making an absolutely brilliant pass to Theis that should have been for the winning bucket.

Smart struggled after his lights-out Game 2, shooting 4 of 15 overall and 2 of 9 from 3, but he did make one terrific play down the stretch, keeping his balance along the baseline and finding Brown for a thunderous dunk and a 99-95 lead with 3:02 remaining.

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I’m still surprised Smart didn’t figure out a way to steal the inbounds pass at the end of the game, but I suppose inbounder Kyle Lowry has a few of those savvy traits himself.

No, Walker and Smart aren’t quite Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge when it comes to having that simpatico connection, but their fit is impressive given that this is the first year they’ve played together (save for their Team USA bonding experience last summer). And they are my favorite backcourt the Celtics have had since those ’80s glory days. I’ll bet you they’re excellent, individually and in tandem, in Game 4.

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