Here’s the best way we can describe Boston’s defensive energy and overall focus on Monday night: Everything the Celtics weren’t in Game 4, they were in Game 5.
Because of that, Boston is one win away from a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
Marcus Smart set the tone by getting into the body of Toronto’s guards and routinely made them uncomfortable. Jayson Tatum scrambled for the sort of rebounds the Celtics too often let Toronto grab in Game 4. Jaylen Brown continued to make Pascal Siakam’s life miserable around the paint. Kemba Walker threw his body in harm’s way to draw another charge. And Daniel Theis was everywhere as Boston’s defense played on a string while the Celtics limited Toronto to 11 measly first-quarter points.
After an inexcusably lethargic performance in Game 4 that allowed Toronto to tie the series, the Celtics bounced back with the sort of performance that showed just how good they can be during Monday’s 111-89 triumph.
Before tip-off, Walker went around to each of his teammates in the hallway outside Boston’s locker room and performed a “heart check.” The results came back quickly with positive news for the Celtics.
"I just wanted the guys to be tough,” said Walker. "I just thought we got out-toughed last game. They just played harder than us and I know what we are capable of.
"I just checked my guys' heart and they showed it -- big time.”
Theis, in particular, was outstanding in that first quarter. Midway through the frame, the German big man got switched onto Kyle Lowry …
… Theis shuffled along to deny Lowry’s initial drive then refused to take the bait when Lowry thrice tried to get him in the air with pump fakes. Lowry eventually settled for a low-percentage mid-range fadeaway with Theis’ hand in his face. It missed the rim and triggered a shot clock violation.
The Raptors were still stuck on 5 points more than eight minutes into the game when Norm Powell raced off a screen and attacked the basket. Theis again shuffled along and swatted the layup attempt off the glass.
The block got Boston running in transition — something the team desperately needed to do more after its halfcourt offense bogged down the past two games — and Brown finished the play with a poster jam on top of Game 3 hero OG Anunoby.
Even when the Raptors finally got a bit of momentum in the second quarter, Boston quite literally ripped it right away.
First, Marcus Smart pried the ball out of Lowry’s hands to prevent a transition layup …
…. A few minutes later, Tatum looked like a defensive lineman picking off a quarterback’s pass while leaping for a theft that had Boston breaking out in transition again.
"It’s a good feeling when you can game plan, talk about something, and then go out there and do it,” said Tatum. “But, also, it’s frustrating. If we can do it, then why don’t we do it every time? Some of it’s human nature but, us as professionals, we’ve just got to take more responsibility. It’s not an easy task. They’re the defending champs, it’s the playoffs, it’s going to be tough, but if we want to keep playing more often than not, then we’ve got to go out there and compete.”
The Celtics downshifted after opening a lead that ballooned as high as 30. Still, the Raptors mustered only 35 first-half points on 13-of-43 shooting.
After Boston failed to bounce back from a gut-wrenching Game 3 loss, coach Brad Stevens seemed particularly pleased with the effort his players displayed in Game 5.
“We were playing with great purpose,” said Stevens. "You could feel that from the get-go.”
Celtics Talk Podcast: After dominating Game 5, how can C's close out Raptors in Game 6? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube
Later he added: "That's the thing I take away, that it's not about winning a game, it's not about winning three in a series now. It's about just the process of growth, when you show that resilience. That's what it's all about. You can't go through a playoffs without having heartbreakers. You can't go through a playoffs without something bad happening. You just have to be able to respond. So I thought that's what I take away. I knew we had good competitive character, and you really saw that on display tonight.”
The Celtics need to bottle that energy up and bring it to Game 6. The Raptors most certainly won’t be an easy out and, even with a 3-2 series lead, Boston must play with the same defensive intensity from Game 5 to close out the defending champions.