The recipe for the Toronto Raptors beating the Boston Celtics in their exhilarating Eastern Conference semifinals series has been simple: When Kyle Lowry is the best player on the floor, his team has emerged victorious.
Boston’s winning concoction has been murkier. The Celtics’ four best playmakers — Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — provided a united front in Game 1. They rode Tatum’s 34 points to victory in Game 2 and Brown’s 27 points in Game 5. As soon as Toronto’s defense has plugged one leak, another springs, but their combined flow has to be greater than the deluge Lowry is capable of spewing.
Lowry’s 33 points and eight assists in Game 3, including a strike to OG Anunoby for the game-winner, spoiled Walker’s best scoring night of the series. And Lowry’s 33 points and six assists in Game 6, including the game-sealing turnaround in double overtime, quieted stellar offensive nights from Brown and Tatum.
This presents a simple defensive strategy for Boston in Friday’s do-or-die Game 7 but a more complex one on offense. While the Celtics can devote resources to limiting Lowry on one end, it is far harder to plan for the emergence of an alpha on the other. And make no mistake: Game 7s often require a singular offensive force. It is easy to say everyone must show up with the season on the line, and there is almost always a random role-playing wild card, but when push comes to shove, Game 7 is swung by the outing’s alpha dog.
And push usually comes to shove in Game 7.
Tatum, Brown and Smart learned this lesson well in their last Game 7, when LeBron James amassed 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to slim victory in the 2018 East finals. Toronto is well aware, too, having seen Kawhi Leonard score 41 points and the game-winner in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in last year’s East semis. We all need to look no further than Sept. 1, when Nikola Jokic’s 30 points, 14 rebounds and game-winning hook shot ousted the Utah Jazz in a Game 7.
Rarer is the more balanced effort that led this year’s Houston Rockets to a first-round Game 7 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those generally arise when the should-be alphas — Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook — all fail to emerge. The Celtics cannot enter Friday’s Game 7 believing Lowry will not establish his dominance, because he has delivered in all three of Toronto’s must-win games in this series. And if his shot is not falling, he will still stand his ground, pushing and shoving and tugging and flopping.
So, who will be Boston’s alpha?
Smart is every bit the defensive menace as Lowry, and he will have offensive flurries — epitomized by his five straight 3-pointers to swing Game 2 at the start of the fourth quarter — but Celtics coach Brad Stevens will not be calling plays specifically for Smart with a series in the balance. Likewise, Brown’s shooting has come and gone in wins and losses against Toronto, but he is best used as an off-ball weapon.
Game 7 is Walker’s or Tatum’s for the taking.
Walker has seen one Game 7 — a first-round meeting with the Miami Heat in 2016, when he scored just nine points on 3-of-16 shooting as the sole focus of a dismal Charlotte Hornets offense. Each game now is the biggest of his NBA career, and the Raptors swarmed him in Game 6 of this series. Walker finished with only five points on 11 shots in 52 minutes on Wednesday. Granted, it could have been more, had officials correctly called a shooting foul on his last-second drive in regulation, but there was plenty left to be desired.
Toronto has Lowry and VanVleet to wrangle opposing point guards, but Walker found decent looks in Game 6. The shots just did not fall. The Celtics should look to get him going early. He attempted just two shots in the first quarter on Wednesday, the second of which was a contested last-second fadeaway in the corner. Walker has the potential to be the better player opposite Lowry, but that is far from a narrative in this series.
Lowry is building a Hall of Fame résumé with each grinding victory, and Walker came to Boston with that opportunity in front of him. He has yet to seize it. What a chance the Bronx-born point guard has on Friday night to win the ultimate playground duel with Lowry, an equally prideful Philadelphia-born floor general.
Tatum has been here before. He dunked over James and buried an ensuing 3-pointer to give the Celtics a 72-71 lead in Game 7 of the 2018 East finals before they inexplicably stopped feeding their precocious rookie. He is still only 22 years old, and Friday is another of those potential legacy-defining games that often define a rising superstar’s trajectory. He has not been exceptional since his 34 points in Game 2 — a night that featured four 3-pointers and 14 free throws, the full breadth of a scorer seeking his points.
He has since submitted a pair of sub-40 percent shooting efforts and a 1-for-6 dud from distance. Even his 29 points in Game 6 felt emptier than the box score suggests. After sinking a go-ahead three with 8:22 left in the fourth quarter, he shied from his shot and finished 0-for-2 down the stretch of regulation, also tossing the ball out of bounds in the direction of Raptors coach Nick Nurse with less than a minute remaining in a tied game. He did not attempt a shot in the first overtime, and his five points in the final minute of double-OT were scored in vain with Boston scrambling to overcome an offensive onslaught from Lowry and Co.
The Raptors have thrown just about everyone at Tatum, often two at a time, even flustering him by sending pitbulls Lowry and VanVleet swiping into his space. They have toyed with Tatum’s confidence. He has at times hesitated stepping into his shot against smaller defenders and taking bigger ones off the dribble.
Game 7 is no time for Tatum to forget he is a 6-foot-8 specimen with an array of offensive moves unmatched in this series, honed in gyms with Kobe Bryant and against LeBron. Toronto can bottle up the 6-foot Walker, but Tatum can be unstoppable in Game 7, so long as he establishes himself as the alpha dog.
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