Why the Celtics’ growing pains have only made them stronger

We should feel encouraged by their up-and-down play against Toronto, even if the series isn't over.

Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and Jaylen Brown of the Celtics battle on the floor over a loose ball.
Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and Jaylen Brown of the Celtics battle on the floor over a loose ball. –Getty Images

COMMENTARY

OK, all right, so I was off by a game.

That’s because the Celtics were off, way off, for a game. Fortunately, just one.

Perhaps some of you recall that I predicted with confidence –  OK, I might have thought of it at the time as omnipotence — that the Celtics would bounce back strong in Game 4 after losing Game 3 of this series on OG Anunoby’s stunning buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

It was test they needed, I wrote, and a test they would surely ace. A necessary battle scar on the road to bigger things.  A rite of NBA postseason passage. Nothing big to worry about. Don’t sweat it.

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The Raptors won Game 4, 100-93. It felt like it was 100-73. The Celtics got that second battle scar in this series awfully fast.

Perhaps you were one of the several people that wrote to me after the Celtics played arguably their poorest game of the season to suggest all of the creative places I ought to shove that prediction.  I’d win “America’s Got Talent” in a landslide if I could pull of some of the contortions so colorfully suggested.

So it goes with a young, ascending team trying to take down a proud champion. The Celtics shot the ball like a roster full of Mikael Pietruses in Game 4, most of the loose balls found their way to the reinvigorated Raptors, and suddenly it felt like the series had tilted steeply in Toronto’s direction.

Then Game 5 happened. The Celtics came out from the opening tip and played with the poise that was missing in Game 4. They held the Raptors to five points through nearly the first nine minutes of the game, and they never wavered, winning 111-89 in a satisfying and suspense-free victory.

Now, I’m not going to suggest I expected this in Game 5, after waiting for it in Game 4 and having them deliver a poorly timed clunker that magnified any doubts we might have had about them. But I will say this:  Their resilience and readiness in Game 5 is the most encouraging occurrence of the postseason so far.

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I thought it was interesting – and a sign of maturity – that the Celtics acknowledged their effort had to be better after Game 4. I’m not sure we would have been talking about their effort, or relative lack of it, had a few more makeable shots fallen, especially for Jaylen Brown. After all, it’s a make or miss league, as old pal Doc Rivers likes to say, and it was a miss after miss after miss league for the Celtics Friday night. It happens.

Yet as frustrating as that game was – and as lethargic as they seemed at times, as jumper after jumper clanged off the front rim – they were still in it down to the final couple of possessions.  They took the blame – with Kemba Walker, the anti-Kyrie – at the forefront, when a few more makes would have easily masked any deficiencies of effort.

I love that this team doesn’t search for excuses, even when they’re readily available and even legitimate. I love how they showed up for Game 5, just when people were starting to write them off.

I love how Brown showed his mental toughness, bouncing back from a brutal shooting performance (4 of 18, including a couple of late makes) with an all-around gem in Game 5 that included 27 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, one hellacious dunk, and some lockdown defense that is making All-Star Pascal Siakam look ordinary.

I love how Walker (21 points) created and made big shot after big shot when needed while willingly ceding the ball to Jayson Tatum for much of the game. I love how Marcus Smart out-agitated Kyle Lowry, how Daniel Theis (one of the more underrated players in the league) made Shaq learn his name and compare him to Chris “Birdman” Anderson, and how the Celtics’ athletic bigs are making Marc Gasol look like a relic dropped into this series from the 1983 Seattle SuperSonics.

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And I can’t help but love another apparent sign of their collective growth: When they’ve built a big lead, they’ve kept it. In Game 1, the Raptors whittled what was a 36-17 first quarter lead for the Celtics down to 9 (39-30) in the second quarter. But the Celtics stepped on the accelerator from there en route to a 112-94 thumping.

Sunday night, the Raptors never really even threatened. It was amusing when TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy suggested with 6 minutes and 52 seconds remaining and the Celtics up 92-73 that the game wasn’t over yet. Thirty-five seconds later, the Celtics were back up by 24 (97-73). Oh yeah, Stanley, it was over.

I have too much respect for the Raptors – Fred VanVleet  and Lowry in particular — to declare the series over before the final whistle. But I will say this: This Celtics team earned some faith Sunday night, and they seem fully capable of rewarding it.

Those battle scars? They’re wearing them pretty well right now.

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