By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Bruins are golfing.
The Red Sox are circling the drain with the second-worst record in baseball.
The Patriots are still a few days away from kicking off the post-Brady era.
Tonight, all eyes are on the Celtics.
With the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks gone from the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the odds have swung to Boston (and not the conquering Miami Heat) to represent the East in the NBA Finals. It’s a lofty expectation for an emerging Celtics team which began the season with just the ninth-best odds to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
As Tony Massarotti wrote, Monday night’s Game 5 (of a second-round series, mind you) had been this unit’s biggest game since the spring of 2018, when a not-ready-for-prime-time bunch (down Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward) bowed to King James and his band of Cleveland misfits in Game 7 of the East Finals.
All of a sudden, this is the moment. The national pundits are on it; the denizens of a region used to winning over the past two decades are thirsty. And with all that pressure at their feet, the Green have no choice but to go brick by brick. It starts with Game 6 Wednesday night against the Raptors.
It’s no coincidence Boston got wire-to-wire wins in Games 1 and 5. When they’re the best version of themselves, few teams can keep up. In each contest, they announced their presence with authority. They put forth a stifling defensive effort, coupled with a purposeful offensive attack. They showed they’re the better team.
Toronto climbed back into the series by throwing a wrench in the gears: their defense limiting looks in the key and creating turnovers, while Boston clanged away from downtown against a disruptive zone. After being a blink away from putting Toronto in a demoralizing 3-0 hole, the Celtics suddenly looked uncomfortable. Marcus Smart was quiet, Jaylen Brown was way off in Game 4, and the absence of Gordon Hayward as an offensive creator loomed large.
But Boston’s defensive intensity in Game 5 rendered the quest for supplemental scoring temporarily moot. They wrested control of Monday’s affair early, holding the Raptors to 4-of-20 shooting in the first quarter of play. While a spooked Pascal Siakam made more than half of his field goal attempts (for the first time in the series), Toronto’s leading scorer in the regular season was plagued by foul trouble and only attempted nine shots.
Meanwhile, the Green sold out on stopping Kyle Lowry, and the All-Star hit just three shots from the field.
What we saw in Game 5 – as in Game 1 – was a group capable of playing dominant defense, with enough offensive punch to hang with anybody in a seven-game series. While Boston may be vulnerable on nights when one of their top three goes cold, their defense sets the tone. Just look at Monday: Jayson Tatum was a frosty 5-of-15, and nobody batted an eyelash.
In Game 6, they can put the Raptors away. They can bounce all the way back from the adversity of a miracle shot and show the rest of the teams still fighting for the prize that the team with the second-best record in the NBA can’t hang. And, perhaps critically, they can get some rest before starting an unexpected Eastern Conference Finals against Miami.
Teams that win the pivotal fifth game of a 2-2 series go on to take that series 82 percent of the time.
The moment the Celtics organization has been building toward since 2013 has arrived. After a highly criticized misfire last year, the Celtics have a chance to catapult back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
They can take a confident step forward tonight.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.