This series was supposed to be how the Boston Celtics’ offense would fare against the Toronto Raptors’ defense. Instead, Brad Stevens and the Celtics had Nick Nurse and the Raptors fumbling in the darkness looking for their offense’s lightswitch. It’s been a while, but we haven’t seen the Raptors struggle like this offensively since they faced the Philadelphia 76ers in last year’s playoffs.
The Celtics were masterful in their game plan, taking advantage of their length, quickness, and athleticism to combat Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. They also scouted the Raptors’ defense well, hunting for open shots a step faster than the Raptors could defend them.
The Raptors pooped the bed in the first quarter, and against good teams, that was enough to put the game out of reach. Some say Toronto came out lacking focus and energy. But what we saw was a team looking unprepared, unable to make adjustments throughout the game to respond to how the Celtics were defending them. That said, once the Raptors got their bearings after the first quarter, the game was closer — but definitely not close enough.
So, what worked well for the Celtics, and what went wrong for the Raptors? Should the Raptors overhaul their strategy, or are there a few tweaks that could change the outcome of Game 2? Let’s take a look.
Defending Siakam’s Post-Up
The Raptors made it easy for the Celtics to defend Pascal Siakam. Nurse essentially used him like Brett Brown stapled Joel Embiid in the post, and the Celtics responded with the same scheme they used against the Sixers.
For the first time in the playoffs, the Raptors faced a defense willing to play the entire shot clock. The Celtics impeded the Raptors’ set plays, giving enough resistance to not let the Raptors walk through their spots and allow comfortable passes. That simple detail ate up precious time off the clock and threw the Raptors off their rhythm.
The Raptors still got the ball to Siakam in the post, but the Celtics trusted Marcus Smart to play him straight up. Smart was able to push Siakam a bit farther and work him a bit harder. The Celtics defense would sag enough, but they also had baseline help coming if Siakam decided to spin. Siakam also got Jaylen Brown in the post, and while he was successful in getting a deeper post position against Brown, the Celtics were quickly on him then too.
Hunting Corner 3s
It’s a well-known fact that the Raptors give up threes, and a good number of them are from the corner. Toronto’s gameplan in these instances is to aggressively close-out and rotate to cover for each other. Expecting this, Stevens got his team acting like the hunter, instead of the hunted.
Taking cues from the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics ensured they had the corner spots occupied for their half-court offense in Game 1. Whether they were running variations of their motion offense or a standard pick-and-roll, the Celtics made sure to get the ball to the corner faster than the Raptors could react to close out.
The Celtics shot 10-of-15 on corner threes in Game 1, compared to 3-of-12 in four games against their first-round matchup with the Sixers. In something of a surprise, Marcus Smart did the most damage in the corners, shooting 5-of-7, while Jaylen Brown shot 2-of-4. Is it time to respect the Celtics’ corner three, or was Smart just on a bit of a streak?
For the Celtics:
In a turn, we’ve got nothing to recommend here. The Celtics should just keep doing what worked for them offensively and defensively in Game 1. They have entirely shut down Siakam’s paint touches and discouraged him from attacking the defense facing up as they showed him a wall of zone defense. Meanwhile, in this make-or-miss league, Boston had Smart shooting the lights out for them, while VanVleet struggled in the perimeter.
On top of that, the Celtics’ bench pulled their own weight, so Stevens has to be happy about that. What they can do is limit their turnovers by executing better. There were times when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown seemed out of control. If anything, they weren’t running enough plays through Kemba Walker either. While the Celtics were able to keep the Raptors’ transition game in check (both teams actually negated each other’s transition game for the most part), they coughed up a few too many turnovers in Game 1. Still, Boston looked very sharp.
For the Raptors:
Let’s not overreact too much, and it’s also not time to push the panic button. At least, not yet. Fred VanVleet won’t miss all of those open shots, but if he’s not stroking it from behind the arc, it might be best for the Raptors to find ways to get him in catch-and-shoot scenarios.
The Raptors weren’t really that bad offensively, taking out the first quarter and all the other bad Siakam post-up possessions. (Yes, that does sound like a lot.) They got the shots they wanted; they just didn’t go in. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have to make any changes for Game 2.
The Raptors need to do a better job with their ball movement and motion on offense. They played out the entire first quarter hoisting up shots after two passes or less on their set plays. There’s also plenty of just standing around, allowing Boston’s defense to concentrate on the on-ball action.
The Celtics are at their best defensively when they are set in the halfcourt, with the expected personnel and rotations. Siakam hung 33 points on Boston earlier in the season, which was a surprise, and it almost cost Boston that game. The lone Raptors’ regular season win over the Celtics was due to the randomness that Patrick McCaw, Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, and Oshae Brissett brought to the table. We also had a glimpse of the Celtics’ confusion when they faced the big Serge Ibaka/Marc Gasol lineup in Game 1.
So the Raptors may need to tap into that chaos energy more for Game 2. But how should they achieve this?
The Raptors need to increase their pace, stay in attack mode, and get into the defense’s teeth early and often. They have enough depth to maintain a high energy/high-pace throughout the game if Nurse opens up his rotation a bit more. The aggressiveness could get the Celtics’ defense backpedalling a bit more and force their key players into early foul trouble, if not fatigue. Boston’s bench played well in Game 1, but they remain fairly thin there — both on offense and defense. The same could be said for Toronto’s reserves, but they remain something of a wildcard in this series.
Revisiting Siakam’s Post Opportunities
It’s a little disappointing how uninspiring Nurse’s strategy was when it comes to Siakam in Game 1. His shot selection was drastically different from their previous Celtics game earlier this season, where he dropped 33 points. Granted, that was the second game of the season, and by now, the Celtics have plenty of scouting intel on Siakam’s tendencies. We have also seen how the Celtics walled off the paint to prevent him from slicing to the basket. What’s worse, Boston took clear advantage of Siakam’s deteriorating confidence in his perimeter shot.
That said, all is not lost when it comes to Siakam. In fact, I suggest that Nurse go back to him in the post, with a few caveats:
- Rim run for a deep post position: one of the issues the Raptors encountered is that it took them a while to get the ball to Siakam in the post. And by the time he did get it, the defense was breathing down his neck. At his best, Siakam has raced to the other end on the court, with Lowry recognizing the effort to get him set for a quick, easy shot (or a trip to the line).
- Varied post-attack: We are a few decades removed from the 1990s, so dumping the ball to the post does not necessarily mean Siakam has to back someone down for his shot while there. Siakam’s got options — he can face up and change the post-up battle’s dimension, or he can initiate a drive-and-kick, using his gravity to create open shots for his teammates. It’s frustrating to see Siakam with tunnel-vision once in the post — we know he’s capable of more than that against Boston.
- Off-ball movement: Let’s admit it — Siakam is not Kawhi, and even Joel Embiid struggled against the Celtics in the post. The Raptors dumped the ball to Siakam and everybody else just stood around, waiting for Siakam to do something. With all five defenders focusing on him, he could use some help: some weak-side movements, a cutter here and there, to provide Siakam that slight opening to get a shot up or make a play. It’s possible for Game 2, but we’ll see.