Yesterday, the Boston Celtics lost to the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of NBA East Conference Semi-Finals in one most heartbreaking finishes I have ever witnessed. After a brilliant play by Kemba Walker to give the Celtics a two-point advantage with 0.5 seconds remaining, Raptor’s point guard, Kyle Lowery managed to find OG Anunoby in the far corner and heave a cross-court pass of 7’5 Tacko Fall, giving Anunoby just enough time to shoot a three, which rattled off the back iron and into the net for the game-winner. It was an incredible play by both Lowery and Anunoby and a huge boner for the Celtics zone defense who never should have let Anunoby have that much space to himself.
As a Celtics fan, my mind immediately went to the “Confetti Game“- the classic Celtics win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Confetti might not have rained down on the court after Walker found Theis at the rim for the go-ahead dunk, but it might as well have. The Raptors looked stunned. The Celtics were jubilant. It looked almost certain that Boston would take a 3-0 lead in the series and turn their eyes toward their second sweep of the 2020 postseason. It was hard to imagine Toronto getting a shot off in 0.5 seconds, nevermind an open look at a game-winning three.
But Nick Nurse was the Coach of the Year for a reason. He drew up a play that forced the Celtics zone to commit hard to the primary options- Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. Had the Celtics been in man-to-man, Jayson Tatum likely would have followed Anunoby to the corner and the play would have had to go to VanVleet off of Gasol’s screen, probably a less dangerous option than what occurred. The zone the Celtics set was designed to prevent the action at the top of the key or on the strong side. It is hard to blame them for that with the incredible wingspan of Tacko Fall guarding the in-bound and so little time on the clock that any cross-court action would necessitate an absolutely perfect pass. Lowery made that pass and Anunoby made the shot. If the ball fell just a few inches shorter, or Anunoby was just a little slower on the gather, the Celtics win.
It’s the razor-thin margin of error that the Raptors walked that makes me think of the Confetti Game. Had Marco Bellinelli’s toe been two inches further back, Philadelphia would have won that game. Instead, they only tied and had to watch as the confetti that rained down to celebrate the apparent-win was cleaned up. They were lifeless and error-prone in the overtime that followed. To their credit Philadelphia did rally to win Game 4, but that was too little and too late at that point. Game 3 should have been a win, but instead it became a defining loss- the first in an ever-growing number of “what-if” defeated for the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid Process 76ers.
Circumstances are different for the Celtics in this series. They led 2-0 going to the game and the Raptors had to fight tooth and nail just to hang with Boston, playing , Lowery, Anunoby and VanVleet all over forty minutes and Siakam for just under thirty-eight ( only Jaylen Brown topped forty minutes for Boston). Perhaps most significantly, there is no home-court advantage in the bubble, so Boston did not have face their heartbreak in front of their own fans, hearing the life sucked from the building as the ball sailed through the net or listen to the explosion of joy that would followed Anunoby’s shot in Toronto.
I am worried for my Celtics, however. Some losses are motivating and others are devastating. The loses that kill teams are usually the ones that should have been wins- the Red Sox losing Game 6 in 1986, the Cavs Game 1 loss in 2018. Those are the ones that are hard for teams to recover from. Many teams never rebound, never get over that feel that they were robbed.
The Celtics are the better team here, though, and that can’t be said of the 2018 Cavs or the 1986 Red Sox. The young stars that were just beginning to come into their own when the confetti fell in Philly are now dominating the East. If Tatum and Brown- the two players most responsible for the last-minute defensive lapse- can shake this off and close out this series against the Raptors, they are serious contenders for the crown. They will have shown that they have the mental toughness to go with all their skills with the ball. If they drop Game 3 in a funk and struggle to close out Toronto, this might just be their own Confetti Game.