Celtics must face the aftermath of devastating loss

AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDaniel Theis of the Celtics dunks in front of Toronto’s Marc Gasol Thursday night in Orlando.

The Boston Celtics, the NBA’s most storied franchise, have never started a playoff run by winning seven straight games.

The 2020 Green came as close as humanly possible Thursday night, only to see a super human shot with only a half-second on the clock hand them their first meaningful defeat in the Orlando bubble.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby shook free for a wide open 3-pointer with no time remained to get the Raptors a 104-103 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The dagger came mere moments after Boston got a ridiculous underneath the hoop pass from Kemba Walker for a Daniel Theis slam that virtually guaranteed Boston the win in both Game 3 and the series.

Without looking anything up and without hyperbole, it could have been the most momentum swinging half-second in NBA history. Boston went from a 3-game-to-none lead in the series and a walk to the conference finals to a very competitive 2-1 set against the defending champs in less time than it takes the typical human heart to beat once.

It’s tempting to say shame on Boston for letting it happen. After the Theis slam, it was pretty clear they felt they had the game won. Certainly all their fans felt that way. Had they done anything to disrupt Toronto’s half-second play -- force Anunoby off his spot, don’t let him set his feet, delay him long enough so the clock expires, deflect the inbound pass -- anything at all, and it’s a set-in-stone trip to the next round with the 3-0 series lead in hand.

That having blown up in their face brings us back to a history lesson. No Celtics team has ever started 7-0 in the playoffs and very few teams in NBA history have ever rattled off 8-0, 12-0 or 16-0 postseason jaunts. At some point, a quality opponent was going to empty the bucket and find a way to hand the Celtics a little adversity.

Now, the question is how do the young Green respond?

Are they rattled? Are they ashamed at the way the game ended in a way that puts them in a shell and allows the Raptors to tie the series in Game 4 on Saturday night? Or do they respond maturely, shaking off the tough break and finding a way to grab an also insurmountable 3-1 lead?

That’s the test for a Celtics group that’s never been beyond the Eastern Conference slate of the playoffs. Young stars Jaylen Brown (23) and Jayson Tatum (22) and Marcus Smart (26) were part of the team that flamed out in Game 7 of the East Finals against Cleveland in 2018.

Growing ego from that success seemed to play a role in derailing the Green last year, so now that they’re facing some playoff adversity will they wilt or prove to have grown up?

You can’t consider that question without pointing at the 30-year-old Walker, more-or-less the replacement for malcontent Kyrie Irving from last year’s squad.

It’s been marvelous to watch Walker in these playoffs. He’s the clutch shooter he always was going back to his days at UConn, but he’s also confident driving to the rim and is tossing around dazzling passes; the one to Theis at the end of the game would’ve been on highlight reels forever had it stood up as the winner.

The only question for Walker is how he’ll respond to the pressure. He’d never won a playoff series before this August. In the bubble, he’s already doubled his career playoff wins. Everything we’ve seen says he’s going to bounce back from this defeat, but there’s an outside chance he thinks “here we go again.”

For the first time in these playoffs, the Celtics have taken a stiff shot to the jaw. They’re in a fight now, against a crafty veteran championship team that doesn’t want to cede the crown just yet. We’ll find out this weekend if Boston has learned how bounce back after taking a punch.

You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@gloucestertimes.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

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