I guess going 8-0 in the Bubble wasn’t really realistic, was it? Still, I would have hoped that the one game the Raptors would have circled on their calendars would have been last night’s matchup with the Boston Celtics, their closest rival in the standings and a likely playoff opponent this season.
Instead, they played their worst game of basketball in five months.
Before we start, a quick note to say that sports media in Toronto and across North America, including right here at Raptors HQ, is pretty damn white. A bunch of us made a donation to the Canadian Association of Black Journalists this past week, an organization that is helping to improve inclusion and increase diversity in Canadian media. Check them out and learn what they’re about and why the work they do is important, and if you have the means, maybe shoot them a donation as well.
On to the thoughts:
1. Statement or Meaningless?
Ultimately last night’s game doesn’t mean much for the Raptors’ standing; unless they finish the seeding games 0-5 (anything is possible!) they’re going to win the two-seed regardless.
But! That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a meaningless game. In fact it’s probably very meaningful for the Celtics; for one, they win the season series (rather easily) and by drubbing the Raptors right before the playoffs — where they’ll likely meet in the second round — they give themselves confidence and momentum.
I think that’s why I’m so disappointed in the Raptors’ poor play in this one. The Celtics clearly believe they can beat the Raptors, and by not even putting up the hint of a fight, the Raptors did nothing to dispel that notion. Before last night, I would have said a Raptors-Celtics playoff series would be a great battle, one that I thought the Raptors would win in six or seven games. Now I don’t feel like the Raptors would win and I’m not sure it would be a very good series, either.
2. Rushed or Sluggish?
In trying to describe how the Raptors played last night, I’m torn between saying they looked like they weren’t trying... and that they were trying too hard. Multiple times throughout the game I thought the Raptors, individually and collectively, were pressing, and trying to force something to happen — a pass to go through coverage, a drive to open up, the ball to go through the net. Everyone looked like Norman Powell did two years ago.
But other times, particularly on defense, the Raptors were slow and sluggish. Serge Ibaka only played 14 minutes but I think he lost the screener on about a dozen Celtics pick-and-rolls. Pascal Siakam couldn’t keep up with Jaylen Brown and was forced to foul Brown to slow him down. And those quick rotations the bother opposing shooters? They simply disappeared, and the Celtics had all the time in the world to shoot from distance.
All in all it was a bad combination. Some of this is “just one game, it happens,” stuff that the Raptors can shake off. But some of it, well, it exposes some weaknesses that the Celtics can exploit.
3. Weaknesses Exposed
Corner threes and halfcourt offense. These are the two things we’ve all been worrying about that would be the Raptors Kryptonite in the playoffs, and they were both on display last night.
In the halfcourt, the Celtics repeatedly stymied any action the Raptors attempted with their length and quickness. Even Kemba Walker did a solid job bodying up Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and forcing the Raptors’ offense to start a step further out than they usually do; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown completely bottled up the wings and when the Raptors did get something going downhill, the Celts rotated with Raptors-like speed. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors scored 61.5 points per 100 possessions out of the halfcourt last night. To put that in perspective, they typically score 94.5 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, and already low number (17th in the league). 61.5? That’s a big ol’ yikes.
And corner threes, well, the Celtics shot 10-for-15 from the corners. No context needed there, that’s just plain bad, and if that continues in the playoffs, well, again, look for a short run from these Raptors.
4. Is it Time to Worry, Pascal Siakam Edition
Pascal Siakam hasn’t quite seemed himself in the Bubble. His shooting has been off and he’s seemed a bit slow and a bit disengaged. He hasn’t operated in the paint nearly as effectively as in the past, and his attacks seem just as likely to result in a turnover rather than a bucket or a nice dish to a teammate. (His three-point shot has actually been the most reliable part of his game in the Bubble; he’s shooting 39%!)
Last night was his worst game by far (5-for-15 shooting, no free throws, two rebounds, no assists, two turnovers). Jaylen Brown had a lot to do with that; he used his size and length to prevent Siakam from doing anything he wanted to do, clearly frustrating Pascal and winning that head-to-head matchup with ease.
This is particularly worrying because for all their length, the Celtics don’t — or at least I didn’t think they did — employ the type of player that typically slows Siakam down, a big and fast body like Jonathan Isaac. Siakam is bigger than both Brown and Tatum, and quicker than Daniel Theis. But perhaps I’m wrong — even though Brown is shorter than Siakam, his broad shoulders and defensive smarts make him just as tough as Isaac.
Siakam definitely has the tools to be better than we saw last night, and Nick Nurse has plenty of tricks to put Siakam in position to succeed. I just hope the two come together when these teams meet in the playoffs.
5. Marc Gasol Dishes [Chef’s Kiss]
There wasn’t much to get excited about from the Raptors last night, but I’m always thrilled to see some sweet Marc Gasol assists! When the Raptors were still (barley) in the game in the second quarter, Gasol found VanVleet with this perfect dime:
Kemba Walker nearly gets a hand on that coming over the top, but the bounce is placed just perfectly so that it goes right under Walker’s outstretched arm and into VanVleet’s hands.
Two plays later, Gasol found Norman Powell under the hoop:
I love that Marc looks over his right shoulder here, sees Powell cutting, but doesn’t have an angle from there — so he turns to the left so he can scoop-pass the ball around the defense. Brilliant stuff from Gasol.
Well that was a frustrating night. At least we have a super-fun matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies to look forward to!