Are you tired of Pascal Siakam highlights? I sure hope not, because my goodness, did last night’s Raptors-Celtics matchup provide a bevy of them! Fresh off being named #12 on ESPNs’ Top 25 NBA Players under 25 — two spots behind Jason Tatum — Siakam took it to Tatum and the Celtics, scoring 25 points and pulling in eight boards in the Raptors’ 118-95 rout.
It was one of the Raptors’ best overall games of the year, so let’s see where the thoughts take us:
That Second-Quarter Defense... Swoon
When the Raptors closed the first quarter with an all-bench lineup, and gave up an 8-2 run, I definitely felt uneasy. Nick Nurse must have felt the same way, because he started the second-quarter with a Kyle Lowry+bench lineup (Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby, Jeremy Lin, Norman Powell) that promptly went on an 18-0 run. 18-0! They would outscore the Celtics 36-13 in the quarter, going into halftime up 21 with the game essentially over.
What the Raptors did defensively that quarter was spectacular and was one of those all-too-rare times this season when you just nod your head and say, “yes, that’s what I thought it was going to be like with this team.” The Raptors were ridiculously active on D, helping and recovering, using their length to cut off passing lanes, getting their hands on every ball and frustrating the heck out of the Celtics. Pat McCaw was running around like a chicken with his head cut off, but with Gasol backstopping the D, the Celtics still couldn’t generate a good shot.
You can’t expect a team to maintain that level of energy and hustle over 48 minutes; that just doesn’t happen in the NBA. But the Raptors are definitely capable of doing it in difference-making bursts, and I hope they start to channel that and deploy it more effectively down the stretch — and into the postseason.
Give Me All the Lead Passes
The Raptors have been a great fast-break team all year, which still seems funny to me because Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka (and now Marc Gasol) are like a million years old, and Kawhi Leonard often appears to be moving in slow motion. But Pascal Siakam’s contagious energy has infected everyone.
The thing that I love the most though, is how great this team is at throwing lead passes. Sure, sometimes Siakam takes it coast-to-coast, but usually, it’s Kyle Lowry (or Danny Green, or sometimes Siakam himself, and now Marc Gasol) spotting someone (again, usually Siakam, but sometimes Leonard) leaking out and dropping a pinpoint pass right in the breadbasket, leading to an easy bucket.
The highlight last night was Lowry dropping a gorgeous dime to Siakam with 57 seconds left in the second quarter, leading to a Siakam lay-up, plus the and-1 (on Tatum, naturally).
Best receiver in the association pic.twitter.com/SicWAC2SzG— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 27, 2019
Kyle also dropped a perfect pass into Kawhi Leonard’s large hands from half-court in the third.
I guess that’s how you run a fast break with an old-man PG: he passes it ahead and doesn’t have to cross half-court!
Get That Garbage... Ah, You Know
You can’t deny that Raptors games lose a little something-something when Jack Armstrong isn’t on the call. The game certainly could have used Jack’s signature line on his third-quarter block of Kyrie Irving. The team’s Twitter account certainly agrees:
Overall the Raptors did a masterful job on Irving last night. Irving straight up murdered the Raptors in the last two matchups, but last night, with Kawhi, Green, and Lin hounding him, he couldn’t get anything going. He finished with a mere seven points and five assists.
You can certainly argue that this Celtics team is in its own collective head, and that the Raptors merely took advantage of their home court, and you could see it coming. But you still have to go out there and play the damn game. The Celtics may be broken, but this is still a huge win for the Raptors.
All Right, so Who Should Start?
I’m on record as being against “platooning” and “experimentation,” as I’m a firm believer in NBA players needing routine and knowing what their role is in order for them — and their teams — to be successful.
Still, I suppose I can’t deny the overall results of Nick Nurse’s approach this year. The Raptors are 45-17 and both Serge Ibaka and the now-departed Jonas Valanciunas were putting up career numbers. Gasol’s still finding his role, of course, and I have definitely been on the “Gasol should be a full-time starter” team... and yet... I can’t deny that I like the way he looks with bench units. Especially bench units that include Kyle Lowry!
So I’m torn. I generally believe that you should start your best players, and I definitely believe Gasol is a top-five player on this team. And I have a hard time believing that the team traded for him, and is paying him $24 million, to come off the bench and play 20 minutes a night. But... it is possible that his best role on the team is, well, being the new bench dad and helping get the most out of OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Pat McCaw.
It definitely seems wrong... and yet... maybe it’s right? Lowry+bench units have been great for years, if the Raptors can unlock Lowry+bench w/Gasol units... that might give Toronto a huge edge in the postseason.
(BTW, for JV Hive — it’s easy to look at his numbers in Memphis and say “The Raptors weren’t using him right!” I think the counterpoint is clear: He was playing the fewest minutes of his career, posting career highs in raw scoring and overall efficiency. And the Raptors were 23-7 with him in that role. I’d say that, for whatever Nick Nurse’s other faults might be, he knew exactly what he was doing with JV.)
I Like Jodie Meeks on This Team!
Jodie Meeks might well be gone by the time this is published, but I gotta say... what he brings — straight gunning, a threat that the defense must respect, all in short bursts — is something this team needs. He doesn’t need 20 minutes a night, he doesn’t need the ball in his hands or the offense to run through him. He just needs to find a little bit of air and when the defense pays attention to Leonard, Gasol, Lowry, Siakam or whomever, get his hands up and get ready. And he sure as heck can do it.
Having him around for the stretch run and playoffs in the 11th man spot seems like a great fit to me. Sure, a big rebounder might also be helpful off the bench, but I think Meeks’ elite skill is more needed and valuable in today’s NBA.
So, what to make of this Celtics team? I’ve been on the side of “they’ll be fine, they’ll figure it out” all season, but, they’ve only got 21 games to go, and they seem to be a long, long ways from figuring out anything.
As a Raptors fan, I couldn’t be happier. Boston, and their fans, deserve to have their team with their golden boy coach and their “Celtic for life” superstar go down in flames.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Kyrie Irving is still a terrifying playoff opponent. But hey... if the standings hold, Irving will be the Sixers’ the Bucks’ problem this postseason, not Toronto’s.