The Toronto Raptors’ lead on first place in the Eastern Conference is on precarious ground after a 110-99 loss to the Boston Celtics, who used flawless execution (five turnovers all night) and a stellar defensive fourth quarter (seven forced turnovers in the fourth alone) to take down the first-place Raps.
The First Quarter Was Pretty Much Ideal
I’d say the Raptors got exactly what they wanted in the opening frame. The offense was clicking, everyone contributed, they scored 33 on the league’s best defense and the level of difficulty on the shot attempts was not high. DeMar DeRozan had six points and five assists, Serge Ibaka—after missing his first shot and getting called for an offensive foul on his second—settled in and scored eight, and Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet each hit a 3-pointer.
And on the defensive end, the Celts scored mostly in the midrange, and Aron Baynes was their primary scorer. Seriously! I mean, good for the Celtics for feeding the hot hand—Baynes was 5-of-8 and 2-of-2 from downtown, this after hitting one 3-pointer in his entire career before tonight—but the Raps will take that all day.
Sure, the lead was only two, but I was incredibly pleased with the start.
As for the second and third quarters, they were even in terms of score, and the Raptors entered the fourth up two. And then it all went wrong.
The Bench Was a Disaster
The Raptors survived the second thanks to the efforts of the starters, who used a 7-0 run to take back a lead that the bench had squandered. That was a pretty bad omen for the fourth. A strong, physical Boston lineup featuring Greg Monroe, Marcus Morris and Al Horford was able to bully its way to the rim against Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl all night. And a series of miscues—Miles and Delon Wright combined for six turnovers, and Wright blew a layup (off a beautiful touchdown pass from VanVleet)—didn’t help the bench either.
Ultimately Boston’s 6th man, Morris, outscored the Raptors’ entire bench himself, 25-20.
The bench occasionally coughs up a bad game; they’re young, you hope they learn from it and move on. The fact is, though, that on this night, most of the bench’s troubles can be traced back to one player.
C.J. Miles is A Mess Right Now
Miles came in having made only four of his last 17 3-point attempts. It got worse—much worse—last night.
Miles missed every shot he took, outside of his three free throws, had four turnovers and was absolutely abused by Morris, his primary assignment most of the night. I don’t think I have the words to even describe how poorly Miles played. None of his shots looked good (one was an airball, another hit the glass above the box) the turnovers were just inexplicable, and the defense was just atrocious. Miles ended up with five fouls and Morris shot 11 free throws.
It’s hard to blame a whole unit’s failure on one man, but Miles’ shooting helps ensure the second unit can get into a rhythm. When he’s off—and so off he’s not even a threat—it makes things that much harder for VanVleet, Delon Wright (two points on 1-of-4 shooting) and Pascal Siakam (two points on 1-of-3 shooting) to get things going to the hoop. And when he’s throwing the ball away, well, yeah, that makes running an offense pretty tough too!
And when one guy is so in such a mismatch on defense, it makes the whole unit try to adjust, and abandon the things that make them successful.
Make no mistake, this was Miles’ worst game as a Raptor and yet: is he entirely to blame?
More Deserving of Blame: Miles or Dwane Casey?
Miles played 20 minutes last night. That’s the most on the entire second unit, and one more than starter OG Anunoby. He played 6.5 minutes of the fourth quarter, a quarter in which the Celtics outscored Toronto 28-15. Again, Miles was 0-for-6 on the night (and every shot was awful) and he couldn’t stop his man (who ended up as the Celtic’s leading scorer).
What was he doing out there?
This was definitely not Dwane Casey’s best night as a coach. If this game was to be a coach of the year referendum, man, Casey choked big time.
Even just setting aside Miles’ poor play, what, exactly, was the Poeltl-Valanciunas frontcourt we saw briefly in the fourth? Why did OG Anunoby see fourth-quarter minutes for pretty much the first time in a non-blowout situation? How do you run out an Anunoby-Miles-Ibaka-DeRozan-Lowry unit that had played all of two minutes together prior to tonight? It wasn’t a night to experiment, and there was no need to “search for something that worked” because the starting unit was working just fine.
In fact, why not simply run out the starters plus one bench closer (VanVleet, Wright or Powell) like you always do—especially considering the starters were awesome last night? Along those lines, DeRozan was having his best game in ages and yet he sat the first 5.5 minutes of the quarter, and only got four shots (with two coming after the game was out of reach). I know he had a tough week, flying back to Los Angeles and all, but that’s far too long to leave your best player on the bench in a close, important game.
Yes, the Celtics went zone, and the Raptors were cold from deep (8-for-35) and that makes it tough to beat a zone. And the Celtics have big guards, which makes it hard to play VanVleet.
But even at a size disadvantage VanVleet is a better defender than Miles, and right now is a better shooter. And Valanciunas has much more potential as a zone-buster than Siakam or Poeltl.
Look, the Raptors missed a lot of open looks and the Celtics hit a lot of tough shots. They also benefitted from two (and possibly three, replays weren’t shown) and-1 plays that should have been called travels (that’s a six- or possibly nine-point swing). But Casey overthought this one.
How About OG’s Hops?
OK, let’s find a positive or two! DeRozan, as noted, was great. He scored 32 on 19 shots, had seven rebounds and seven assists. But you know what really caught my eye? OG Anunoby’s aerial game.
He had a dunk in the first quarter, and I noticed that he seemed really get up on it. I thought, huh, maybe that ACL injury has been holding him back, and maybe it’s finally letting him go?
Then in the third quarter, he rose up again, cocked it and nearly threw it down all over Baynes’ head (he got the foul and hit 1-of-2). But the attempt alone made it clear that the first quarter slam was no illusion—once again, he got way up.
And hey, respect to the kid, he had a decent game overall—including a nice dish to Valanciunas for a dunk in the third quarter, and another tough finish in traffic on a Lowry pass—and finished with eight points. I don’t think playing him in the fourth was the right move, but, I can’t argue that he didn’t earn it.
So angst levels have risen considerably since Tuesday. The lead for first place is down to two and could disappear on Wednesday, when these two teams meet again. The Raptors will likely not finish with 60 wins, which is a bummer. It’s not the way we envisioned closing out the season two weeks ago, is it?
But adversity isn’t a bad thing. Let’s see how the Raptors respond.