After a bit of a laugher against the Celtics on the Raptors home floor to start the season, the second meeting delivered a much better product that felt like a playoff game from start to finish. Unfortunately, the Raptors lost said game to Boston in overtime, 123-116, dropping their third in a row.
A seesaw first quarter saw both teams still in search of their footing in their respective ways: Kyle Lowry launching an airball three pointer for the Raptors first shot of the game and Kyrie Irving blowing one of his patented circus layups. While Kyle ended up finding his rhythm in his floor game, his ineffectiveness — now three games deep — on the offensive end was underscored by the fact that Kyrie popped off for his best game of the season. With the completion of OT, Irving lit up the Raptors to the tune of 43 points and 11 assists on [checks notes] 69 percent (heh) from the field.
Besides Kyrie cooking the Raptors, Toronto’s defense gradually in for most of the game. In stretches near the midway point of both the second and third quarters, the Raptors showed what pundits and NBA Twitter has been gushing about all season: suffocating, switchy, lengthy defense that is impossible to not only score on, but even get a shot at the rim. In the second quarter, in particular, Boston scored five points in the final four minutes while the Raptors went into the half on a 15-8 run that saw them comeback to within two.
While the run at the end of the half was nice, it was also necessary, as the Raptors were yet again ice-cold from beyond the arc. Toronto finished shooting under 30 percent (8-for-29) for the third game in a row. As a former Raptors couch used to famously say: basketball is a “make or miss league.” All game it looked like the Raptors had the potential to steal this one from the Celtics despite the tremendous amount of missing they were doing.
Ensuring they remained in the game was, you guessed it, Captain Neutral Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi did at some points raise his arms in both disbelief and joy at several junctures of the game, his remarkably even-keeled presence and performance allowed the Raptors to have a fighting chance. Leonard finished with 31 points (on 11-of-25 shooting, but still), 15 rebounds, four assists and three steals; his very large fingerprints were all over tonight’s loss. He was at times inefficient (18 points on 16 shots at one point) but his dominance on defense and his bullheaded stubbornness to get to the rim for the benefit of the whistle certainly helped. Speaking of the whistle, is their a superstar in this league who gets less of a superstar treatment than Kawhi? Yes, he ended the night with 11 free throw attempts, but it felt like that number should have been a lot higher (and for some of the other Raptors too).
Unfortunately for Toronto, Kawhi couldn’t do it all himself. The one-game rest for Serge Ibaka did wonders for his energy reserves and overall pep (he finished with 21 and 4), and Pascal Siakam (16, 9 and 2 assists) continued to be the whirling dervish Raptors fans have come to love. But the lack of depth on the wing reared its ugly head as the game wound down. First OG Anunoby left the game midway through after a nasty fall, then Danny Green (who had a good two-way game going) fouled out on some questionable late whistles jostling for position. Add in the injuries to C.J. Miles and Norman Powell, the Raptors simply ran out of manpower to close this game out. You can only skate by for so long with Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet (struggling in his own right) guarding Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving — especially the latter.
All of this speaks to a growing concern with the Raptors right now. The team’s formally potent outside shooting attack, let by Lowry, but boosted by VanVleet, Miles, Valanciunas, Wright, and even Leonard to a certain extent, has been totally non-existent for long stretches of play. It’s put Toronto behind in a big way, and when you couple that with some stretches of slow defense, you get three losses in a row. It doesn’t help, of course, that the Raptors suddenly look totally banged up.
As we say almost every time here, especially in the early going, it’s not quite time to panic yet. But it’s not great watching Leonard miss clutch jumpers, and seeing the Raptors struggle to shoot the ball. Maybe tomorrow night’s game in Chicago against the Bulls can stop the Raps’ descent. We’ll see.