It was a low-scoring affair featuring a couple of tired teams, but the Toronto Raptors got the result they needed: A 96-78 win over the Boston Celtics, and a three-game (plus tiebreaker) lead for the top seed in the Eastern Conference
The Bricklayers Union Filed a Grievance Between the First and Second Quarters
Both teams came out looking like they lost road games the night before last, which of course they did. The Celtics started 1-for-5, and finished the opening frame at 8-of-19.
The Raptors, meanwhile, started the quarter 6-18, and finished it by missing four straight 3-pointers, plus a Pascal Siakam hook shot. (And guess what? C.J. Miles opened the second by shooting a 3-pointer—and missing!) The two teams combined for a somnambulant 34 points in the quarter.
Overall, 11 of the Raptors’ 23 first-quarter shot attempts were 3-pointers, and they didn’t shoot a single free throw in the first either.
At this point I wrote “this team needs to do a better job generating looks going to the hoop” in my notes. I’ve written this before, but as much as I love how the Raptors have embraced the 3-point shot this season, sometimes they stray too far; there needs to be a balance. You need some high-percentage looks at the rim. You need to put the defense on its heels, and get to the free throw line from time to time.
The good news is, the Raptors were able to turn their shooting woes around, while the Celtics continued misfiring the rest of the night.
The Bench is Alive
As if they read my aforementioned notes, the Bench Mob came out in the second and made a concerted effort to get into the paint. After his missed 3-pointer, Miles drove the lane and found Jakob Poeltl for a and-1; then Fred VanVleet drove at Greg Monroe and drew a foul. Siakam scored at the rim with a lefty scoop two plays later.
Shortly after that, the Celtics brought in their big bench unit (with Monroe and Marcus Morris) and Dwane Casey countered with a surprising Miles, Delon Wright, VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Lucas Nogueira lineup. Yep, just your basic Bebe-plus-shooters crew! And guess what: they went on a 9-0 run! Brad Stevens was forced to call a timeout, and I expected Casey to adjust his lineup, but he actually stuck with it for a few more possessions; they didn’t score again (Miles missed a poster dunk) before DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka came back in, but they didn’t let the Celtics score either.
Overall it was a brilliant game from the bench unit, who (thankfully) looked like themselves again after a shaky performance against Cleveland. Nogueira, in particular, was impressive, playing 18 minutes, scoring six points and nabbing two steals—another great “stay ready” performance. VanVleet controlled the flow of the game during his 24 minutes and shot 3-of-6 from downtown, and he and his bench backcourt mate played the entire fourth quarter.
Delon Wright is Back to Wreaking Havoc
Wright has been quiet recently; he hadn’t scored more than 7 points in any of the past five games, and hadn’t cracked 20 minutes in the last four. But last night he broke out all the tools in the toolkit and reminded us all why he’s such a fascinating young player. When he came in at the start of the second quarter, the Raptors trailed by six; less than 5.5 minutes later, the Raptors led by two, and didn’t give that lead back the rest of the way. And Wright was seemingly everywhere: he was scoring on his usual array of Euro-inspired dance steps; he was getting into passing lanes and making the Celtics miserable on the perimeter; he was scoring on putbacks. He was blocking shots! And hauling in rebounds! And leading fast breaks! I mean, look at this steal; that is a sensational effort. And if that’s not enough for you, may I present the look away pass to Ibaka with 2:25 left that sealed the win?
The man finished with a stat-stuffer line of eight points, nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks, and he ended the night at +19.
Also Back: Defense (And the Little Things)
The Raptors D was locked in from the opening moments of the second quarter, and it continued right to the end of the game. They were fighting through screens, sticking to shooters, and moving their feet; they were also getting in to the passing lanes, deflecting passes, and using those deflections to fuel fast breaks. Overall the Raptors forced 17 turnovers and converted them into 29 points.
Even the rim protection was back to its usual production after an off night against Cleveland; the Raptors had six blocks, and Ibaka, Bebe, Valanciunas and Poeltl altered a number of additional shots at the rim (including a sensational Valanciunas contest on a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt in the first quarter).
You can attribute some of the Raptors’ success on the defensive end to the Celtics only having one point guard healthy, sure; but that point guard was Terry Rozier III and he had no trouble beating up on the Raptors two games ago. And besides, the more important thing here is to get back into good habits, regardless of who the competition is.
Beyond that, quick shout out to the little things the Raptors did to help seal this one. Like Kyle Lowry drawing four offensive fouls; Jakob Poeltl battling for loose balls; OG showing off his hops again on offensive rebounds; VanVleet and Ibaka executing a perfect 1-4 pick-and-roll; and perhaps my favourite, Lowry stealing a jump ball that Morris and Wright jumped—Morris won it, but Lowry just swooped up the right side of the court and stole it away, and got a layup at the other end.
How’s Your Breathing? Heart Rate? All Good?
That feels better, doesn’t it? Yes, I had the hand poised to slam down the panic button after Tuesday’s loss, no doubt about it. And maybe we shouldn’t get too high after beating a team missing its best player (Kyrie Irving) and best perimeter defender (Marcus Smart).
But then again, the same team beat the Raptors on Saturday, and the Raptors really, really needed this one. They came to play. So you know what? Let’s enjoy it.
Looking ahead, there’s still work to do, as the Raptors need one more win (or one more Celtics loss) to officially clinch the top seed. They also need one more win to clinch the best record in franchise history, a somewhat meaningless mark, but, something I’d still like to see.
More importantly, though, they need to build on the things they did well tonight (disrupting passing lanes, pushing the ball, getting to the rim) and continue to clean up a few other things (stopping the ball at the point of attack, giving up offensive rebounds). There are four games left to do it.
The final stretch begins Friday, at home, against Indiana; it would be great to take that one, and go into Sunday’s “Fanapalooza” having clinched the top seed!