Danny Ainge was no different than most other Boston Celtics fans in the waning seconds of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. With just 0.5 seconds until victory, his team poised to take a commanding 3-0 lead over the defending champion Toronto Raptors, Boston’s president of basketball operations hollered at his television set, “Guard the shooters!”
Instead, he watched in horror as Kyle Lowry threw a textbook, 50-foot overhead pass above 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall to OG Anunoby in the corner. Anunoby was open just long enough for a quality look at the basket due to a miscommunication between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Anunoby’s stunning and dramatic 3-point winner instantly renewed the Raptors, who went on to win the next game, too.
“I’ve been involved in so many of those games in my lifetime,” Ainge said to ESPN. “Half-court shots banked in to lose, hook shots dropping at the buzzer to win. Those shots are one in a hundred. I’ve been on both sides of those plays, and they’re just part of the game. It’s why you can’t take anything for granted until it’s over.
“I’m one of those people, when a guy is dribbling up as the clock is running out and he’s about to shoot a three-quarter shot, who is yelling, ‘Contest!’ If there’s a chance at a missed free throw at the end of the game, I’m shouting to our guys, ‘Everybody box out!'”
“[Anunoby’s shot] was a great play,” Ainge continued. “People are going to second-guess us. Should we have had someone else [besides Fall] on the ball? Should we have been in man-to-man? But sometimes you have to give the other team the credit.”
While Ainge was certainly agitated by the outcome of Game 3, he was far more dismayed by the results that followed. Boston dropped Game 4 by shooting 20% from the 3-point line and, more damning, repeatedly getting beaten on loose balls and rebounds.
“Game 4 was our worst game in a long time,” Ainge said. “We missed a lot of open shots. Give Toronto credit for why our team was bad, but we still had time to respond. And we did not respond well.”
When the Celtics lose, it’s generally not because Ainge’s team didn’t play hard enough or with enough confidence. And yet, there was a tentativeness to the way Game 4 unfolded, with Boston’s best players lacking the aggression they had displayed in earlier playoff performances, as if spooked by the results of Game 3.
“One thing I’ve learned through the years is sometimes your confidence affects your quickness of mind, and your quickness of body,” Ainge said. “When guys are playing at the top of their confidence ladder, they are faster, quicker, tougher. Their reactions are better.
“So maybe [the Game 3 loss] was more of a jolt than you think. If the next game was Game 7, I think the reaction would have been different. Again, what Toronto does well is make adjustments — and you have to adapt. That’s easier to do when you are playing with a lot of confidence. Sometimes, the adjustments don’t work or your team decides to do something different. That’s why these series are so much fun.”
Boston rebounded in Game 5 with its most dominant half of the playoffs, leading 62-35 by completely shutting down Toronto in transition (zero points at the half) and from the 3-point line (4-of-18, 22.2%) and pounding the Raptors 26-14 on points in the paint.
That performance prompted Ainge to text, “That defense was fun to watch,” complete with a muscle flex and a shamrock emoji. Asked specifically what made him happiest about the team’s defensive effort, he answered, “Everyone competing.”
In a different environment, Ainge would be ensconced in the bubble with his team, visiting the locker room postgame to offer his observations and his encouragement. But when the Celtics flew to Orlando, Florida, on the team plane, Ainge was not on board. He had suffered a mild heart attack in 2009 that required surgery for a clogged artery, then had another mild attack in 2019 just shortly after he turned 60. Ainge was advised by his physicians that he would be “at risk” should he contract COVID-19.
“My doctors said it would be best if I did not go,” Ainge said. “But, as we’ve gone along — and I’ve thought about it since — I say to myself, ‘Man, it feels to me like the bubble is the healthiest place to be.'”
Ainge agreed to watch Game 5 of the Celtics-Raptors series with this ESPN reporter. His recent heart issues aside, Ainge, an exceptional athlete who played both professional baseball and basketball, does not consider his health to be compromised at all.
“I don’t look at myself in that way,” Ainge said. “I’m pretty active. I’m out playing pickleball and walking 54 holes of golf carrying my bag. I haven’t been nervous or uptight about COVID-19. I wear a mask in public, but I’ve been on an airplane a handful of times. If [the bubble] was starting now, I would probably go.”
Once Ainge determined he would not go to Orlando, he asked Celtics head of player development Allison Feaster to initially represent the Celtics’ front office in the bubble. (Assistant general manager Mike Zarren arrived in Orlando last week.) While Ainge lauded the job Feaster has done, Ainge conceded he has experienced his fair share of FOMO.
“It’s mattered to me that I haven’t been there,” Ainge said. “I wish I was down there sometimes. When things have been the most difficult, those are the times I want to be there more, because I feel like I could help. The great thing is [coach] Brad [Stevens] has been through it now for seven years, so he has a really good handle on things. And even though our guys are young, there’s some maturity there. They’ve already been through a lot in their young careers.
“I’ve been in constant contact with all of them. And as difficult as it has been, being away this long, I think it’s been a good experience.”
Ainge feels the worst for Gordon Hayward, the team’s Swiss Army knife who was in the midst of an understated but critically important season for the Celtics when he suffered a Grade 3 right ankle sprain on Aug. 17 in the first game of the playoffs.
Hayward returned to the bubble on Sunday after a couple of weeks home in Boston, but he has not been cleared to play and likely won’t appear again unless the Celtics advance to the conference finals. Hayward originally planned to leave the bubble for the birth of his son sometime in September, but his wife, Robyn, posted a message on social media suggesting that now that he is back in Orlando, he’s there to stay: “Next time we see you you won’t be the only boy.”
“It’s been just a killer for Gordon,” Ainge said. “He had worked so hard this summer to get himself right, and does so many things for us. And then he goes down.
“And we miss him. We need that one more guy who can create, who is always thinking ‘pass,’ who can play off the ball so Jayson and Jaylen and Kemba [Walker] can do their thing. He was a great complement to them and scored at a very high rate of efficiency without a lot of touches. He’s also 6-foot-8 and very strong. He’s that bigger guy for us when we are already small.”
Hayward’s time in Boston has been marred by significant injuries, including a freak incident in his Celtics debut in 2017 that left him with a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia that cost him an entire season.
Ainge revealed that when Hayward was training during the NBA shutdown, he experienced some nagging pain in that left foot.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Ainge said. “Just an annoying little thing that he couldn’t quite shake. He played through it and came into the bubble feeling great. And then to have the ankle sprain on the other foot … it’s just really, really tough.”
Grade 3 sprains can often linger for months, not weeks, because they frequently entail ligament damage, swelling and mobility issues. In addition, Ainge said, Hayward’s ankle sprain also damaged a nerve, leaving him in excruciating pain until it finally calmed down.
“It was pretty tough those first five, six days,” Ainge said.
Ainge remains optimistic Hayward will have time to contribute.
Walker has made it through his knee discomfort and is feeling strong, according to Ainge. And Ainge said he is enjoying the continued development of Brown, who is also navigating his role as an emerging and powerful voice for social justice. Feaster, Ainge said, has been an excellent sounding board for Brown.
“I think there’s a delicate balance there for Jaylen to want to play well at a crucial time of his career, but also to have this platform and do right by it,” Ainge said. “I’ve found that players, especially when the playoffs roll around, have a hard time getting their minds off of performances and games, even though they have [free] time. It takes a pretty strong focus and strength to get through the ups and downs of playoff basketball.
“Every player is different in how they deal with those things. Allison played 16 years of professional basketball and is someone who was always aware of social justice. So in some ways, I feel she’s more qualified when it comes to hot topics like that in our organization. She’s been a major influence with regards to our platform, and she’s a great communicator who has excellent relationships with our players.”
If the Celtics are to advance, they will need big nights from Walker, Brown and Tatum, the latter having emerged as one of the game’s best young talents but who still, at times, struggles to consistently carry the load every night.
“I just know Jayson has it in him,” Ainge said. “He believes he is special, and he has every intention of being special every single night.
“At the same time, you have to respect this league. You’ll see former MVPs struggle in some games. The competition is fierce, and you are playing against other special players every night, like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. There’s greatness on every roster this time of year. It’s what you do with that greatness to help your team.”
On Monday night, Boston’s greatness was spread evenly across the board in the 111-89 dismantling of the Raptors. The Celtics’ big three of Tatum (18 points, 10 rebounds), Walker (21 points, 7 assists) and Brown (a game-high 27 points) outscored Toronto’s trio of Siakam, Lowry and VanVleet 66-38.
Ainge, celebrating outside the bubble, was asked what pleased him most. His answer was succinct: “Defense and sharing the ball.” There was no need for him to fire up Zoom to commiserate with players or coaches after this one. When you trounce a team as thoroughly as Boston did, nobody has to worry about what will transpire in the final 0.5 seconds.