Back-to-back playoff losses for the Boston Celtics has left Brad Stevens little choice but to seek out changes.
But what will they be?
When I asked him to share some of those changes the Celtics need to make in order to get a win in Game 5, Stevens played things close to the vest.
“I don’t know if that would be the smartest thing I’ve done,” he said. “But there are a couple of things we need to do different.”
He’s right, of course.
Especially when you consider how Toronto had its way in Game 4 to even up the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
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So in honor of an all-important Game 5 tilt between these two Eastern Conference powers, here are five things that Boston absolutely has to do a better job at if they are going to regain control of this series and advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in the last four seasons.
SLOW DOWN LOWRY
The last two games, there has been no better player in this Boston-Toronto series than Kyle Lowry. In that span he has averaged 26.5 points on 18-for-39 shooting to go with 7.5 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game.
Before this series started, I wrote about how Jayson Tatum’s defense more than his offense, will be key to Boston winning this series.
That has indeed been the case when you look at how the first four games have played out.
In Boston’s two wins in Games 1 and 2, Tatum was the primary defender on Lowry, who missed six of his eight shot attempts in that span with Tatum guarding him.
But in the last two games, Lowry has been a mainstay at the free throw line while also making three of his five shot attempts with Tatum defending.
Toronto has done a good job of getting Lowry in favorable matchups via switches, which is evident when you look back at Game 3 when Lowry tallied eight of his game-high 31 points in a 46-second span while being defended by Daniel Theis.
On this particular play from Game 4, Lowry uses a pick set by Marc Gasol against Tatum and immediately prepares to attack Celtics big man Robert Williams III.
Lowry gets inside the 3-point line and quickly relocates behind it. Gasol starts to roll to the basket with Tatum guarding him, while Williams appears to be in no man’s land - not guarding the roller (Gasol) or the shooter (Lowry).
Lowry makes the Celtics pay with a 3-pointer.
When he wasn’t getting easy looks shooting, Lowry spent a lot of time at the free throw line.
Even though Lowry has more combined free throw attempts in Games 1 and 2 (17) than he has had in Games 3 and 4 (12), Toronto’s Game 3 and 4 wins have been fueled in part by his ability to get to the line early.
In Games 3 and 4, 10 of Lowry’s 12 free throw attempts have come in the first quarter, which in many respects opened things up for Toronto’s much-improved 3-point shooting.
Compare that to Games 1 and 2 when Lowry took 17 free throw attempts without any being taken in the first quarter.
Here’s a look at all five of Lowry’s made field goals in Game 4.
GET KEMBA MORE SHOTS
Of all the inexplicable results in Boston’s Game 4 loss, few were as big a head-scratcher as Walker taking just nine shots from the field.
One of the NBA’s better scorers since coming into the NBA in 2011, Walker had 15 points on 4-for-9 shooting.
For Walker to take so few shots is a sight seldom seen from the veteran All-Star.
“I gotta be more aggressive,” Walker said after Game 4. “I wasn’t aggressive enough; that’s not acceptable. There’s no way I should be taking nine shots.”
Especially if the Celtics are serious about regaining control of the series with a Game 5 victory on Monday night.
During the regular season, the Celtics were 5-4 in games in which Walker took less than 10 shot attempts.
But the bounceback for Walker after such performances is encouraging.
Walker and the Celtics are 6-3 in the game after he took less than 10 shots from the field.
Look for the Celtics to try and create more action involving Walker getting to the rim to score or find teammates open for great looks at the rim.
ATTACK MARC GASOL
Toronto has a defense that’s rock solid on so many fronts, but Gasol has been vulnerable on several occasions.
And the Celtics need to do a better job of going at him, creating more situations where he has to defend without getting help.
That may require the man who Gasol spends the most time defending, Daniel Theis, to be more aggressive when he has the ball on offense.
Go back to Game 1 when we saw Theis do the seemingly unthinkable: attack the paint off the dribble and finish at the rim while being fouled.
And because Theis isn’t one of the Celtics’ rim-attackers, the Toronto defense was caught off-guard with no help coming for Gasol who had little choice but to foul Theis who successfully converted the three-point play.
And while on this particular play we see Theis having success against the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, he’s not alone.
In the four games thus far, Celtics players are shooting 48.9 percent (22-for-45) when guarded by Gasol.
Similar to what the Raptors have done with Lowry, Boston must also do a better job at putting its best player, Jayson Tatum, in more situations where he can attack a mismatch with few if any bigger than when Tatum is being defended by Gasol.
In the four playoff games, Tatum has scored a total of 13 points in two minutes, 14 seconds while shooting 55.6 percent (5-for-9) when the primary defender is Gasol.
MORE “SMART” PLAYS
We know Smart is going to make mistakes, but rarely are they rooted in effort.
Trailing 44-42 in the second quarter of Game 4 with a chance to tie the game or take the lead, Smart makes a very careless pass that Toronto’s Kyle Lowry is able to get his hands on and triggers a Raptors fast break opportunity.
Toronto didn’t capitalize on the opportunity, but that’s not the point.
The turnover, one of Smart’s game-high five miscues in Game 4, robbed the Celtics of a scoring opportunity. And Toronto is too good a team to make these kinds of careless mistakes.
TATUM HAS TO BE GREAT
For most of the postseason, Jayson Tatum has been really good. But in this series, against this team, Tatum has to find another gear to shift into and do it fast!
When you look around the NBA at the teams that move on, their best player typically has a few seminal moments that in many ways define not only their status with their team but also where they sit in the NBA upper-echelon pecking order.
Tatum has had a season that’s likely to land him on one of the all-NBA teams, a tangible mile marker as to how far he has come in a very, very short period of time.
The third-year forward was named to his first All-Star team back in February. He responded afterwards with some of the best basketball of his career and on a larger scale, stood out as one of the best players in the NBA - a lofty perch for a player who is just 22 years young who seems to be doing things that no Celtics player so youthful has accomplished.
But for the Celtics, all those lofty accomplishments and the barrage of praise that he receives, means little when you don’t elevate your play when your team absolutely needs more of whatever it is you bring to the game.
Tatum’s at that point now.
This series is tied at 2-2 with the Raptors clearly having series momentum in their favor.
Tatum has averaged 23.5 points per game in this series, shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point range. He’s grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out 4.3 assists.
All good numbers, for sure.
But the last two games have shown us that the Celtics need their best players to bring more to the table, Tatum included.