• “Defense” was the word of the night for both the Celtics and the Clippers on Monday night. Both teams emerged victorious to take secure a one-game lead their respective series. The Celtics put on a clinic, defeating the Raptors 111-89, kicking the defending champs into a 2-3 hole. Meanwhile, the Clippers leaned on former Raptor, Kawhi Leonard, to put on a massive defensive effort, which included a one-fingered block at the rim (yes, you read that correctly) as they utilized a commanding fourth-quarter surge to come away with the Game 3 win over the Nuggets, 113-107.

    The Mean Green Machine

    The Celtics-Raptors series has had more than its fair share of exciting swings in momentum, but on Monday, the pendulum was clearly swinging on the side of the Celtics. It was one of those nights where everything seemed to fall into place. Their defense was on point, so much so that Brad Stevens’ crew stayed in control of the game all throughout.

    Thanks to a game-high 27 points from Jaylen Brown, the Celtics cruised through this one with relative ease. While he set the tone on the offensive end, his teammates followed suit as they rolled passed the Raptors with some series-defining momentum. Kemba Walker chipped in 21 points, and Jayson Tatum added 18 of his own to the box score. But then again, Boston’s Big 3 are expected to deliver the goods. So it was obviously a pleasant surprise that they got some bonus, unexpected help from the likes of Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, who both chipped in 15 points apiece.

    Straight up, the Celtics outclassed the defending champs in this one and they made it look easy. Too easy, for Nick Nurse and the Raptors’ comfort. They simply couldn’t get it going early and their opponents capitalized on their sluggish start and snowballed the advantage from there. Fred VanVleet led the charge for the Raptors with 18 points, not something that’s encouraging, especially in a game where they were down by as big a margin as 30 points at one point. Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry were the only two other Raptors starters to end the night with double-digit scoring, adding 10 points each to the box. Norman Powell put up an impressive effort off the bench with 16 points on 4-of-11 shooting from deep. But sadly, Serge Ibaka added injury to insult, well almost, as he headed to the locker room late in the fourth quarter. It’s good to note that postgame, coach Nurse said that he hadn’t heard of any injury to Ibaka, so there’s that. Ibaka had been rolling over the past couple of games (Raptor wins), but tonight even he was not himself as he added seven points, four rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes of action.

    Despite the dominant fashion with which the Celtics put away this game, Nick Nurse is no slouch and his basketball genius will be put to the test as the Raptors find themselves at the cusp of elimination in a must-win Game 6. Nurse and Brad Stevens have been playing a game of chess throughout this series and it has been a magnificent thrill to watch as their plans and strategies play out on the hardwood floor. So needless to say, expect Game 6 will bring fireworks as the gritty Raptors will play like cornered, wounded animals – dangerously.

    Just the Tip

    Kawhi Leonard has been famous for his very large hands and you know what they say about men with really large hands – they can block shots with only one finger (see above). The former two-time Defensive Player of the Year awardee brought his toolbox of tricks tonight. One of them was indeed a one-fingered block at the rim over Jamal Murray. Leonard’s defensive effort set the tone for the Clippers to come out on top. Leonard ended the game strongly and put up a 23-point, 14-rebound double-double which also included six assists and two blocks. Meanwhile, Paul George torched the Nuggets with 5-of-7 shooting from behind the 3-point arc to finish the game with a team-high 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting with four rebounds, four dimes and two steals. Combined, the two superstars put up an excellent two-way performance, reminding everyone in attendance (and watching at home mostly, actually) why the Clippers are the favorites to advance onto the next round.

    For most of the game, it looked like the Nuggets were going to edge out the Clippers for the 2-1 series lead. It looked like the Clippers could not find a way to deal with Nikola Jokic. Until they did. But no, not really. Jokic had himself yet another monster night, flirting with a triple-double to the tune of 32 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, three treys on 13-of-24 shooting. Yes, he had his way in the paint and almost anywhere else on the court. The key for the Clippers was pictured there in that image. They shut down Jamal Murray. Hard. Murray, who has normally been a spitfire on offense lately, got shut down and was limited to scoring 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting. To his credit, he did find ways to get Jokic the ball and wound up recording nine dimes on the night.

    Given Murray’s shooting woes, it was Michael Porter Jr. who rose to the occasion for Denver, compiling an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double with three steals and 8-of-17 shooting in 23 minutes off the bench.

    To somewhat oversimplify the game, just look at the fourth quarter where the Clippers outscored the Nuggets 29-19 as they generously poured on the “Defense Sauce” to take this game away from Denver in the final minutes.

    As impressive as Kawhi and PG were tonight, along with the rest of the Clippers squad, the Nuggets have been coming up with eye-opening performances in this series so far, giving them a much tougher fight than they likely expected to deal with. One thing’s for sure, it ain’t going to be a cakewalk for either team moving forward. For now, the Clippers have the clear advantage with the 2-1 lead, but the Nuggets have both the tools, the talent and the depth to make this one memorable seven-game series and even possibly be the ones coming out on the other end with their hands raised in victory.

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