There are a few too many things to blame for the Raptors’ Game 1 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics. They lost badly 112-94, never leading throughout all 48 minutes, and finding instead only ways to get in their own way. That’s not to say the Celtics didn’t play well — they did — but, hoo boy, this game was about as close to a worse case scenario for Toronto as they could possibly get. Nothing worked, even when it looked like it was working. And now, yes, we have to start assigning blame.
In the days of yore, prior to Toronto’s 2019 championship victory, this would be easy. This was a Game 1 after all, and the Raptors always do poorly in Game 1s — especially as the team with homecourt advantage. That doesn’t much right now, given that every team is competing in Disney World with no fans in sight — but that’s part of it, right? Well, if nothing else, it’s not wrong. The Raptors had their classic Game 1 look against Boston on the afternoon, skipping and studdering all over the court, turning the ball over, clanking shots and generally looking confused. After 12 minutes, the Raptors had already fallen behind by as many as 19 points while shooting 36 percent from the field and 33 percent from three. The excitement quickly fizzled from there.
Since Toronto is the best team in transition in the league, and owns its second-best defense, it still felt possible for the Raptors to come back. As has happened again and again all season, they’ve tended to lock in their defense for stretches, generate points off the run, and make things interesting. Instead, the Celtics kept on them from the jump, playing disciplined defense and limiting the Raps to four fastbreak points in the first half — and a grand total of seven for the game. For a team dogged by concerns about its halfcourt offense, the Raptors never quite looked comfortable — even in their comfort zone — finding it hard to create chances in the open floor before settling into a choppy halfcourt offensive game. It doesn’t help they were missing most every open shot too.
After a buzzer-beating three at the half from Kemba Walker (a lights-out 6-of-11 for 18 points), the Raptors had been able to shrink Boston’s large lead by exactly... two points. They were down 17 heading into the third, finding only the smallest glimmer of hope as they trundled into the second half. By this point, Toronto’s entire starting lineup had thrown up more bad shots than perhaps their entire time in the Bubble, each player at single-digits in scoring for the half. Any time Serge Ibaka — with 12 points at half-time — is the Raptors’ leading light on offense, problems tend to abound.
We discussed blame in the lede, so now it’s time to get specific. The Raptors were totally let down by the three players they rely on most. While all three of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam eventually got their statlines into semi-respectable shape, there was no hiding their misfires. Lowry managed to finish the afternoon with 17 points, eight assists, and six rebounds, but hit only one three and looked for long stretches like a man determined to spin himself into nausea. Good Lowry knows how to ride the fickle wind of a basketball game to his advantage; Bad Lowry wrestles with everything — the other team, the refs, his teammates, himself. While he tried his best to make Game 1 competitive, Lowry just did not have it this afternoon against Boston.
Same goes for VanVleet and Siakam, perhaps the future cornerstones of Toronto. Siakam scored the team’s first bucket, following through with an and-1 to break an early drought. Then he went without another made field goal until the third quarter. True, Pascal earning three quick fouls in that opening frame didn’t help, but he couldn’t get much else going when he was on the court. For the game, Siakam finished with 13 points on 5-of-16, with zero made threes. While his Boston forward counterparts were running this way and that, Siakam went back to the same few moves, looking more and more stuck as he went along. It was tough to watch.
Don’t worry, we didn’t forget about VanVleet. After seemingly single-handedly decimating the Nets, VanVleet couldn’t find the bottom of the net, period. He was 3-of-16 on the afternoon, including an ice-cold 2-of-11 from three, which got him to 11 points to along with eight assists. He did have six steals, but most of them came after it was clear to the Celtics they weren’t going to have to work too hard in this one. By the time of the final buzzer, Ibaka had climbed up to 15 points, OG Anunoby had a neat 12 and seven, Norman Powell made it to ten, and Gasol had chipped in seven. Everything fell into place — such as it was — after that, with the Raptors shooting 37 percent from the field and an impossible 10-for-40 from three (25 percent). Boston, meanwhile, just kept having their way.
There were a few decent moments. Coach Nick Nurse trotted out a zone defense a couple times, turning the tide for a few minutes here and there. In those moments, the Raptors did look like they’d mount a serious comeback after getting a massive lead down to a more manageable 12 or so. I liked the fact that the Raptors could go big with Ibaka and Gasol in the frontcourt to try and punish Boston’s thin core of centres and forwards. Yes, Daniel Theis still held his own with 13 points and 15 rebounds, but it’s a look that could do damage. (I’m assuming, of course, Robert Williams won’t get to perform a windmill dunk in Game 2.) And sure, let’s give props to Terence Davis for coming in, shooting 50 percent from the field, and doing what he could. After a cruddy 48 minutes from Toronto, we’ll take that kind of shooting where we can find it.
There remain bigger issues at play here, with even more things to blame. Yes, Boston’s ability to defend Toronto is a concern — despite our insistent belief that the Raptors’ shooting woes will sort themselves out eventually. After all, now with the Game 1 yips out of the way, maybe Toronto will indeed settle down. And, why not, let’s curse at the early start time as well; the Raptors never seem to catch a break in that regard, even while we acknowledge how and why their game ended up happening at such an ungodly hour. (I will not be blaming the refs on the afternoon, even if some of their whistles were delayed or wrong; the Raptors did themselves zero favours in that regard with sloppy and late defense.)
On that note, let’s just blame the strange energy of the entire Bubble restart and these recently restarted playoffs. While it’s been mostly forgotten now, with LeBron James and Barack Obama (somehow) becoming significant figures in the two-and-half-day league shutdown, it was actually Toronto’s VanVleet and Powell who put into words not only the emotions — which were everywhere in the Bubble — but the very actions the players could take. We’ll ultimately credit George Hill as the first domino, but it did sound like Fred and Norm were ready to do what they had to as well.
Now, this isn’t necessarily an excuse for playing poorly — though it’s worth noting that strident Jaylen Brown also had a cool 6-for-18 outing — but there’s no way the weight of everything wasn’t bearing down in part on these Raptors. In truth, I’m not sure what the antidote is for that, for everything inside the Bubble and out, but I remain hopeful.