By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – Does anyone else feel like the Celtics should be getting ready for the Eastern Conference Finals? While you can certainly file some grievances with the officials in Game 6, the Celtics really don’t have anyone to blame but themselves.
Boston has had some major issues closing out the Raptors, mostly because the Raptors are a pretty good team. But the Celtics have shown that they are the superior group throughout the series, they just have some really poorly timed lapses at critical moments. The end of Game 3 was the perfect example, and several moments in Game 6 further hammered that home.
The Celtics can’t afford any of those Friday night in a win-or-go-home Game 7 against the defending champs. Anything can happen in a Game 7, and it will likely look a lot different than the other games in this series. Game 7’s are rock fights. Slugfests that test teams mentally and physically.
This has been a pretty strange series. The Celtics have two blowout wins. The Raptors have won three of the four games that were close. The Celtics have more talent, but the Raptors have more experience. The Celtics should have wrapped things up by now, but the Raptors are still alive because the Celtics didn’t close them out. Boston has given Toronto new life, and Toronto has taken advantage.
If the Celtics want to prove that they have the championship mettle, this is their chance. They have to learn from Game 6’s mistakes and go out and play a near-perfect game on Friday night. They just can’t overthink it, and when things don’t go perfectly, they have to quickly move on and focus on the next possession.
Here are three important keys to Boston advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tatum Needs To Be Tatum
Tatum nearly put up a triple-double in Game 6, dropping 29 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in his 51 minutes. He started off cold, just 1-for-7 in the first quarter and 2-for-8 in the first half, but finished pretty strong.
But there was an element of him trying to do too much, too. He had six turnovers on Wednesday night, including his pass to Nick Nurse late in regulation while the game was tied, and a costly one in the final minute of double overtime that led to an and-1 layup for Toronto on the other end. He passed up an open three to attack the basket on that double-OT turnover, which is usually the right move, but Norman Powell was there to pick his pocket.
Overall, the Celtics have to take much better care of the basketball, and that starts with Tatum.
Kemba Walker was completely shut down offensively in Game 6. He had zero points at halftime after the Raptors threw a Box-And-1 defense his way, and never found his rhythm in the second half. He finished with five points for the game. Five points over 52 minutes isn’t going to cut it from Boston’s max-money point guard.
Tatum was also struggling offensively to start Wednesday night, but he did everything else on the floor. Kemba has to do the same. If the Raptors take away his shot, drive to the hoop. If they’re waiting there, dish it out to an open teammate. Do something, anything, to make an impact on the game.
Walker took just three shots in the first half of Game 6, and then looked hesitant for much of the second. These are the moments the Celtics signed Walker for, and the reason he joined a team like Boston. He’s said time and time again that he’s OK to be a spectator as Tatum and Jaylen Brown take over games, but it’s time for him to shine when the Celtics need him to, even if it doesn’t mean putting the ball in the basket.
WIN THE DOGGONE THIRD QUARTER
The Celtics have outright stunk in the third quarter this series. They haven’t won a single third quarter against the Raptors, outscored by 37 points in the frame over the first six games. It’s inexcusable, and on Wednesday, it pretty much cost them the game. They went into halftime up by four, and found themselves down by eight at one point in the third. They managed to get back into it, but that’s no way to win a ball game.
The Celtics have given the Raptors too many opportunities to stay in games, and that has usually come with a lackluster start to the second half. It’s the main reason they’re in this position.
Brad Stevens said the Raptors have been playing with more “force” out of halftime. Players seem to be at a loss when it comes to this issue.
“I wish I could tell you. I wish I could. We’ve been really conscious of it, but it’s still been happening,” Walker said after Game 6. “Like I said, I can’t tell you much. We just have to be better. We just have to find a way to start those quarters better.”
Enough saying it. It’s time to actually go out and do it. Otherwise, the Celtics will be leaving Orlando a lot earlier than they had hoped.