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Grasping for First Place? The Raptors are already better than the Celtics

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For so many reasons, the Raptors are, in fact, superior.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday’s Raptors-Celtics match-up in Toronto was supposed to be a face-to-face stare down between a pair of excellent teams, both of which possessing an argument for being superior to the other. Boston’s top-ranked defense quite obviously sucks to try and pull apart, and had already driven the Raptors’ shiny new offense back to more primitive times once this season. Toronto’s a two-way monster, sporting the best second unit in the league and that aforementioned newfangled attack. Boston’s a team capable of surmounting enormous deficits. The Raptors sport the league’s best home record and have a propensity for blowing out bad teams.

In their 111-91 win in the most anticipated game of the season thus far, the Raptors tore up those seemingly even pre-fight match-up particulars, and proved that while they sit a single game back of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference, Toronto is an objectively better team than Brad Stevens’ group of guys who try really hard. Here’s why.

Toronto’s Statistical Profile is Better

Numbers pointed towards the Raptors being the better of the East’s two Finals hopefuls before the ball was even tossed up to open Tuesday’s game. Heading into the match-up, the Raptors boasted a 2.0-point edge over Boston in overall NET Rating (+7.0 to +5.0 per 100 possessions). Al Horford and the group of wings Danny Ainge happened into because the Nets were dumb have propelled the Celtics to the top of the league’s defensive charts — prior to getting slapped around last night Boston was the only team with a sub-100 Defensive Rating in the NBA — but tugging against their night-to-night stinginess is an offense that kind of stinks; 20th in efficiency after last night, to be exact.

Unlike Boston, Toronto is excellent at both halves of the game. Only the Raptors sit in the top-five of both the Offensive and Defensive Rating standings — they’re fourth in the former, third in the latter.

In one night the Raptors ballooned their NET Rating edge over the Celtics from +2.0 to +2.9 thanks to a 113.9 to 91.2 Offensive Rating disparity. Good offense ... something, something ... good defense.

“Pace, screening, tempo,” said Kyle Lowry when asked how the Raptors took it to the league’s most daunting defense. “Tempo we run our actions with. That was one thing (assistant coach Nick) Nurse said to us this morning. We had to have fluidity to our offense ... and that’s what we did tonight.”

“If you try to come down every possession and play against their defense its difficult,” said Dwane Casey, echoing how key the speed with which the Raptors initiated offense and ran the floor was to opening up the game.

Toronto’s a better shooting team than Boston — fifth in the league with a 57.1 True Shooting percentage to Boston’s 16th at 55.1. And after an overachieving start, the Celtics have slipped just below the Raps in rebounding percentage,

On a macro-est of scales, the Raptors are a more impressive statistical team than the Celtics. No, I don’t care to hear the comparison between the two teams’ crunch time stats. The Raptors would score 122 points per 100 possessions against the Hawks and Magic in crunch time too.

Toronto is Deeper

I mean, obviously. Toronto is deeper than pretty much every other team in the league. On Tuesday, the Celtics became the latest collection of poor, hapless souls to get in the way of the Raptors second unit in the midst of One of Those Nights.

After a tight-sphinctered first quarter, the five-man group of Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl made an Irving-led second unit look like a Shane Larkin-led second unit. Over a span of 6:39, the Raptors bench mob stretched the lead from four to 16, and padded their impressive numbers as a grouping.

“They started moving the ball, getting into them defensively,” said Dwane Casey of the second quarter bench mob run. “Making sure that we covered the paint and got back out to three point shooters.”

“We take a lot of pride in it,” said VanVleet on the success the bench has had in so many recent, important games. “That’s our job as the bench, to come in with that spark and that energy. Try to change the pace of the game ... We’ve been able to do it a few times this year.”

Boston’s reserves just aren’t as punchy as Toronto’s. While in plenty of instances this year, the Raptors’ bench has propped up uneven starts, the terms of the Celtics’ success are dictated almost entirely by Irving and Horford. When Irving sits, Boston’s offense slides from formidable (107.9) to untenable (99.2); Horford’s absence has a similar, only sort of less extreme effect. One of them essentially has to be on the court at all times in order to pick up the Semi Ojeleyes of the world. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are annoyingly likable and troublingly good, but asking first and second year guys to uphold even a league-average offense when they’re best suited as off-ball threats is an unfair request.

Help might be coming. Greg Monroe will soon join the team to take minutes from team Defensive Rating leader Aron Baynes and skewer pick-and-roll coverages while posting up a bunch. If you’re a Raptors fan, your biggest fear coming out of Tuesday’s ass-kicking is that a pissed-off Danny Ainge will drop a bag of assets to make a move before Thursday’s trade deadline. Tyreke Evans could help Irving-less lineups avoid stooping to Kevin O’Neill Raptors levels of offensive suckage.

Even if Ainge does give Stevens a few more bench toys, there is no goddamned chance the revamped Celtics bench will do fun shit like this.

Toronto has Better Coaching

Okay, yeah, this is just a heat check take. Stevens has turned a roster that features Daniel Theis and Ojeleye in meaningful bench roles into a 39-16 powerhouse. He’s great at his job. Stevens vs. Dwane Casey is probably closer to a dead heat than basketball internet would have you believe, though. Coach of the Year very well could come down to who earns the one-seed, and Casey has overseen a remarkable overhaul of the team’s playing style and interpersonal trust levels. If Stevens called a sideline out of bounds play this flawless, Boston.com’s newsroom would have to be cordoned off as a bio-hazard.

Toronto is More Likable, Spiritually

Basketball success isn’t entirely built on numbers. Feelings matter, too — perhaps even more than effective field goal percentage. And the feelings the Raptors incite are far more joyful and pure than what the sterile Celtics can provide.

A fake-deep, flat-earther Dukie, an emotionless wunderkind and the guy who was almost certainly the last pick in the All-Star draft, because who cares about fundamentally sound screens and dribble hand-offs in an All-Star Game, form the identity of this Celtics team. Contrast that with Toronto’s brash, perpetual underdog of a point guard, its silky-smooth, self-made leading scorer and head coach whose origin story spans decades and continents.

Toronto’s front-facing image is well-rounded, rich with character. Boston’s star doesn’t even believe in the concept of roundness; Stevens is so square his edges could draw blood.

Boston’s current position is barely earned. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were gifted to the Celtics by Billy King. Give any general manager a head start on a rebuild like Ainge got from the idiotic Nets and he’d have to go out of his way to screw it up. Toronto emerged from irrelevance and morphed into a model organization through shrewed drafting and a commitment to internal development.

Boston wears its 11 new players on the roster as some sort of badge of pride. I’m certain Toronto’s bosses find that disgusting. Isaiah Thomas’ sheen has quickly faded with all that’s gone on in Cleveland, but don’t let his doctor’s note search distract you from the cold-bloodedness on the part of Ainge that landed him on the Cavs. Dude was shipped off while nursing a hip injury he almost certainly exacerbated during his spirited and grief-stricken playoff run. None of that mattered to the Celtics when something better came along.

The Raptors are led by Masai Ujiri — as philanthropic and progressive an executive as has ever existed in pro sports. This is a franchise defined by diversity — from its roster to its fan base. Toronto’s public basketball courts and Canada Basketball are just the most recent benefactors of the franchise’s desire to be more than a just a basketball team.

Not only are the Raptors a better constructed on-court product than the Celtics. They are inherently good in a way their Atlantic Division underlings can not claim to be. Betting on the Raptors to outlast Boston this season is not only smart, it’s morally right.

Uhh... anyway. The point stands, lost plot or not. The Raptors are better than the Celtics. It was nice for the truth to get a win on Tuesday night.