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Five thoughts on last night: Celtics 117, Raptors 108

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After a brutal second quarter, the Raptors crept back in it, even taking a 4th-quarter lead. But this was the Celtics’, and Kyrie Irving’s, game. 

Five thoughts recap: Boston Celtics 117, Toronto Raptors 108, Kyle Lowry David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Everything started so beautifully. Heading in to the game, the Celtics were spiralling, and the Raptors were rolling; the first 10 minutes of the game made it seem like the trends would continue. Then a shaky bench finish to the first quarter led into a terrible second quarter for the Raptors... but that was nothing compared to the horrendously brutal, disastrous final three minutes.

I Literally Just Can’t Even

I was the living embodiment of that Saturday Night Live sketch during that fourth quarter stretch last night. The Raptors’ inability to manufacture any kind of offense, while allowing Kyrie Irving to continually break them down at the other end, was just horrifying. I wanted to bury myself in my couch and never come out.

The Celtics closed the game on a 17-4 run. (17-2, really, as Pascal Siakam scored a meaningless bucket with a few seconds left.)

That run saw the Raptors go for 0-for-6 from 3-point range, and 1-for-3 from two-point range (and the one — a wild Danny Green turnaround — was hardly inspiring). Not a single one of those shots would classify as a good shot that came in the flow of the offense, and Kawhi Leonard was oddly passive, giving up the ball to Green and Kyle Lowry even when facing a single defender, and opting to shoot three of those triples. They even managed to throw a 24-second violation in there for good measure.

This team is an absolute mess in clutch situations. I just can’t even.

Nick Nurse Punting the Q1/Q2 Bridge Was a Strange Look

The Raptors have done a great job staggering Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard with bench units lately, juicing those units and ensuring the Raptors always have a primary shot creator on the floor. Nick Nurse went away from this look last night, against a key Eastern Conference opponent, and I’m not sure why.

Instead, we saw Danny Green — a wonderful player but not a ballhandler or shot creator — with the bench in the first half. It went as well as you’d expect, with the Celtics going on a 9-2 run before Lowry popped back in. (Even then Fred VanVleet continued to be the primary ballhandler, which he has not excelled at this year.)

Why would Toronto run out a Green+bench unit instead of Lowry or Leonard? Or even Pascal Siakam? (The Siakam+bench group started the fourth, and was much more successful.) It just didn’t make sense.

And all of that occurred with Kyrie Irving on the bench. When he came back in, the Celtics had all the momentum, their offence gave their defense confidence, the crowd was back in the game, and the Raptors quickly found themselves down by 12 in the quarter.

Did Al Horford Have A Season Resurgence in One Half?

I’ve been convinced that, even though everyone talking about the Celtics’ problems has been focusing on Gordon Hayward, and the young guys taking a step back, and Kyrie Irving being a terrible leader, that they were missing the obvious — Al Horford made this team go last year, and he’s been both hurt and underwhelming this season.

He was certainly a step slow in the first half. He had a super-weak opening possession, trying to muscle a ball past Serge Ibaka; he got free for a dunk on the Celtics’ second possession, but barely got up to the rim to slam it home. He led a slow-motion fast break after a Lowry missed 3-pointer, had an entry pass stolen by Kawhi Leonard, and even tripped up Kyrie Irving on a botched screen.

But when he posterized Ibaka in the third, he flipped the script. He went 7-for-9 in the second half, including 2-for-3 from downtown, for 19 points — and he had a rebound, layup and dunk in that 17-2 closing run.

Guess he’s not completely washed just yet.

Scouting Report Says...

The Celtics are one of the best teams in the league at guarding the 3-point line (second in opponents’ 3-point FG%) and at shooting the 3-pointer (sixth in 3-point FG%). So I guess it isn’t really a surprise that the Raptors shot 7-for-29 from deep and the Celtics shot 14-for-30. But it definitely made a difference in this one.

The Raptors did miss several open looks in this one, including a wide-open Danny Green attempt in the third that’s usually money (this was not Green’s night; he was 6-for-15, had two turnovers, was roasted by Irving and finished with a -7).

But all those aforementioned threes down the stretch were well-defended. And Kawhi was having success going to the rim and getting foul calls earlier in the fourth, so settling for those bombs was hugely problematic. Obviously credit the Celtics’ D for forcing the Raptors into those shots, but the Raptors needed to work the ball inside more in this one (they shot 54% inside the arc), and couldn’t make it happen.

More Leonard on Kyrie Irving, Please

Kyrie Irving was unreal last night, just like he was the last time these two teams played; he can pretty much just do whatever he wants against the Raptors.

Which begs the question... why don’t the Raptors put their best defender on him? Sure, there were a couple possessions where Leonard D’ed him up, but for the most part it was Danny Green guarding him.

Obviously the Celtics will try and screen and get switches to put Irving in favourable matchups, but they’re going to do that anyway. And there’s no one better than Leonard at getting his hands on a ball and disrupting screen actions, so why not have him guard from the point of attack?

Kyrie’s confidence level against Toronto from all those years of playing in Cleveland must be sky-high, so maybe it wouldn’t make any difference. But gotta give it a try.

********

I know it sounds defeatist, but after that second quarter, even when Toronto took the lead back late, I just didn’t think they had a chance in this one, not unless the Raptors somehow blew it open in the fourth. Boston is the far, far superior team in crunch time. The Celtics with Kyrie can get whatever shot they want, their defense knows how to lock down and make things difficult, and they have the better coach.

I still like Toronto’s roster more, but those things matter — especially in the playoffs. And the thought of seeing this team in round two is not one I like contemplating.