It’s the last minute of Game 7.
The Boston Celtics just watched as their eight-point lead was shredded to 2, 89-87, in a matter of 2 game minutes by a furious Toronto Raptors rally.
On the ensuing play, Jayson Tatum, overshot a finger-roll and the Toronto Raptors were up and running. Pascal Siakam cleared the board, dished it off to a sprinting Norman Powell dashing for the game-tying two with no one in front of him.
And out of nowhere, Marcus Smart chased down Powell and smashed the leather off the board averting the equalizing bucket. A gem of a defensive stop that could very well have been the block that saved the Celtics season.
Still, the Raptors stayed alive and fighting. After Celtics rookie Grant Williams crumbled under extreme pressure and bricked two free throws, Tatum lept to the stratosphere, cleared the rebound and got fouled. Tatum split his gimmes at the line to leave space for another Toronto comeback.
With the score at 90-87 and 35 ticks to go, the window was wide open for one Toronto miracle leap into overtime. Perhaps the Raptors fans were hoping for another edition of that unbelievable corner three from OG Anunoby with a half-second to go to salvage Game 3.
With their best option from range covered, Fred Van Vleet could not replicate the Anunoby Hail Mary as Grant Williams redeemed bricking his two free throws with a series-clinching block.
Win preserved, the Celtics advanced on to the Eastern Conference Finals after stinking in the 2019 Playoffs run.
A series-clinching victory for the game’s original monarchy that is hungry to reclaim the throne they once sat on for so long.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge had a lot on his plate after the 2019 debacle. A stack of upcoming free agents with one major decision – to blow it up and start building around stars or keep the tattered tires rolling.
But like every year of Trader Danny, his appetite for risk shifts from taker to aversion unpredictably. That summer, his major decision hinged on Kyrie Irving’s return as well as extending the contract of Big Al Horford, the backbone of the Boston frontline.
If they sign, the nucleus stays.
As the story went down, Kyrie ghosted the Celtics the entire free agency and Horford got an unbelievable 4-year, USD 110 million deal from their Eastern Conference rivals, Philadelphia 76ers. Great dough for an aging superstar.
The dominoes started to fall. Trader Danny quickly made salary cap room and disposed of back-up point guard Terry Rozier, did not sign Marcus Morris Sr., gave up the second pillar of their frontline, Aaron Baynes, and it looked like the Cs were set to undergo another major reconstruction with the young guns as their foundation.
As the Celtics tried to snag talents from free agency, the biggest catch remained to be Kemba Walker, a replica of Kyrie, after Michael Jordan felt that Charlotte’s main man was not worth max money.
Has Kemba been the difference-maker?
The biggest basketball debate among the Celtics faithful was whether Kemba is better than Kyrie.
The answer is a mind-boggling NO. At least by the numbers.
Kyrie had more points (23.8 vs. 21.1 points per game), more assists (6.9 vs. 4.7), grabbed more rebounds (5.4 vs. 4.6), and had more steals (1.1 vs 0.9). Irving shot better at 48.7% than Walker’s 40.7%.
To those who point at Kyrie’s tendency to ball hog? Here is another number for you, Kemba Walker dribbles more with 4.9 seconds per touch compared to Irving’s 4.27.
With the two-inch difference in height, opponents took advantage by shooting over Walker and getting better looks.
But to those who were ready to write-off Kemba, do remember what they called him in college – CARDIAC KEMBA. In games with the lead less than five points in the last five minutes, Cardiac Kemba lit it up from downtown with a 46.2% shooting percentage compared to Kyrie’s 36.6%.
Yet, the biggest difference is that during clutch situations, Kemba was comfortable sharing the sugar.
Unlike Kyrie’s ego that demanded the offense going through him most of the time, Walker involved the young guns, something that was missing in the 2019 playoff run.
In the 2018 season when most of the Celtics superstars were shut down before the playoffs, the young guns showed what they were made of. Coach Brad Stevens went to his budding stars, then-rookie Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
In an amazing run, Tatum and Brown led Boston and took Lebron’s Cavaliers to a Game 7. Although Cleveland advanced to the finals, the Celtics were clearly on the rise with a young core and a ton of future picks.
Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned in the 2019 season but clearly the chemistry was gone. Terry Rozier spilled all in his interviews calling the environment “toxic”. The vets wanted the spotlight and wanted the young Cs to take the supporting role.
Both Tatum and Brown’s numbers hit a snag and Team Boston was in turmoil.
Kemba’s arrival made the Celtics one happy team again. The energy was back with a bunch of young guns enjoying playing with one another. The rabid bench endlessly cheered on their team and celebrated every tomahawk or a basket from deep.
This rediscovered team spirit made stars out of Jason and Jaylen. Tatum’s average leaped from 15.7 in 2019 to 23.4 in 2020 while Brown’s stats are up from 13 points per outing to 20.3. They achieved this while having a significant increase in their assist numbers.
All these are results of more touches in offense, an unselfish mentality of the team starting with their leader, Kemba.
Coach Brad Stevens has been known as one of the believers in analytics and that basketball is 48 minutes of fluid activity. Team stats over the years will never change in a rigid system like Stevens’ and between 2019 to 2020, the Celtics numbers are not up or down significantly.
But the Celtics are starting to play as a team.
The jab-stepping and spinning Tatum now relentlessly attacks the rim or finds open green shirts. Brown improved his range while piercing the shaded lane when the opportunity allows it. Walker is still clutch when needed. Smart remains to be a menace on both ends of the floor while Daniel Theis is fast becoming one of the league’s best rim protector.
And when faced with unbearable adversity, the 2020 edition of the Boston Celtics seemed to have this quiet confidence that they can pull it through. From being down double digits against Joel Embiid’s Sixers to their struggles against the stubborn Raptors, Boston seemed confident in their ability to deliver in the clutch.
Positive chemistry breeds confidence.
Despite all the upsides, the bench is the suspect in the Celtics’ trip to Banner #18. Perhaps this is the biggest hole Big Al Horford and Aaron Baynes left the moment when they moved on.
With this newfound chemistry and team dynamic, the question still remains — Can the Boston Celtics go all the way to reclaim their long lost throne and at the end of the season, raise up banner 18?