With 7:55 left in Game 2, the Celtics’ Marcus Smart caught the ball with OG Anunoby — the Raptors’ best wing defender — bearing down on him. Taking one dribble left, he stepped back and nailed a three-pointer over Anunoby’s outstretched arm.
The shot was Smart’s fifth made three of the fourth quarter, and tied the game at 85. Toronto would only lead briefly in the closing minutes after that, and it put the finishing touches on a Boston erasure of an eight-point Raptors lead heading into the final quarter. They would go on to win the game 102-99 and are now up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference semis.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, Smart has not prototypically been a shooter for Boston heading into this series. Still, he’s the man that the Raptors have been comfortable leaving open, and his explosion in Game 2 was just the variance the Celtics needed to win.
Through two games, we’ve been watching a coin flip series. The Raptors and Celtics are both impossibly good defensive teams, able to shut down the lane with length and size, and rip out to open shooters all over the floor. On offense, both teams have the committee approach to scoring — relying on double digit contributions from multiple players in order to find success. Transition is nice, but in this matchup most opportunities are getting snuffed out. In Game 2, the rebounding margin was only three, the bench scoring margin was only eight, and the two teams were only separated by one turnover.
The difference through two games, then, is simple: the Celtics are finding ways to win in the half court and the Raptors are not.
In Game 1, Smart, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker all shot over 50% from the field to get the Celtics into the driver’s seat. In Game 2, Smart and Walker made shots down the stretch when the Raptors could not — the Boston backcourt combined for 27 points in the fourth while Toronto could only muster 21 as a team.
In the fourth quarter, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart combined to go 9-for-10 from the field, 6-for-7 from 3-point range, and outscored Toronto 27-21 by themselves. Might be what winds up deciding this series.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) September 2, 2020
Still, the Raptors had four possessions between them and a Game 2 win in the last five minutes.
On back-to-back looks starting at 5:25, Fred VanVleet missed wide open threes on the wing that would’ve made it a one possession game. When Kyle Lowry got it there through force of will — making a technical free throw and driving for an and-one with 1:01 left — execution then became the problem. With two chances to tie the game, Nick Nurse went with Pascal Siakam in isolation. On the first chance, he isolated against Smart and got stripped — with the ball landing safely out of bounds. Second chance? Siakam stepped on the sideline after receiving an inbounds pass. A last-second VanVleet heave fell short to give the game its final score.
Siakam is going to take some heat after this game for this finish, with a bit of it deserved. Still, he was more efficient in Game 2 — making two aggressive shots early and finishing 6-for-16 for 17 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Nurse and the Raptors expect him to create in the clutch, but he was put on an island on both opportunities — without a screen set, he has no choice but to drive into the best part of Boston’s defense: the paint. Having Smart switched on anyone is also not the advantage teams should be looking for.
So, don’t yell and scream at Pascal too much. What’s becoming clear is that the Raptors are going to have to solve their half court woes by committee. In Game 2, only six players scored in double digits. Lowry and VanVleet are shooting just 31.8% in this series. Terence Davis has struggled to play defense without fouling in his minutes. Marc Gasol and Norman Powell combined for just ten points and will need to be a factor if Toronto is going to come back.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. OG Anunoby was a notable bright spot in a rough-and-tumble game that favours his playing style. He had a playoff career high 20 points and made 4-for-6 from three, a few of them on beautiful sidesteps with the Celtics running into his face.
Buckets by OG pic.twitter.com/nltCvUkwRh— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) September 1, 2020
Anunoby added seven rebounds, two of them offensive, to keep Toronto possessions alive. His cutting was also tremendous — an area of emphasis Nurse mentioned after a stagnant Game 1 — as he got a handful of opportunities off baseline runs.
THAT'S THAT OG STRENGTH pic.twitter.com/yLxqcEh81C— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) September 1, 2020
His production wasn’t enough to offset that of Jayson Tatum, though. While Smart and Walker made the big shots late, Tatum was excellent throughout, scoring 34 points on 17 shots and getting to the line to make all 14 of his free throws. Jaylen Brown also scored in double figures with a quiet 16, including three triples.
It’s been those small areas of difference — Boston’s ability to get to the free throw line, Tatum’s efficiency — that have added to the Celtics’ repertoire. The whistle in Game 2 will be a loud topic of conversation, but egregious mistakes favoured both teams at different points. To the officials’ credit, the worst call — a Marcus Smart flop in the third quarter — was reversed after a challenge and resulted in a three-point play for Toronto.
That weird play, one that ended up with the right call being made, gave the Raptors a 12-point lead. The problem wasn’t the officiating after that point, it was Toronto’s lack of ability to close the deal.
The Raptors will now have to come up with answers heading into Thursday’s Game 3. In a coin flip series, though, it’s just those little variances that need to swing back your way. There are many things Toronto is doing right. If they can just make some more shots and get more guys involved, this could be back to 2-2 and all the stress will look silly in retrospect.
A couple other observations:
- Serge Ibaka continues to be excellent offensively in this series, as he had 17 of Toronto’s 21 bench points in Game 2. The challenge has been his activity on the glass, as Robert Williams scored 10 points in the first quarter and out-hustled both he and Marc Gasol on different possessions. If the Raptors are going to stick with a centre for all 48 minutes, Ibaka needs to put more emphasis on snuffing out second chances; Gasol gets a bit of a pass because of his positioning on that end.
- On Gasol, it’s clear that his defense is still making him the best option at the five for the Raptors, despite his inability to score in double digits; Gasol was a +7 while scoring only six points. While it might be tempting fate to play a smaller lineup, mixing in that look could help Toronto’s activity and ensure the drop-off when Gasol goes to the bench isn’t as severe.
- The lack of impact from Davis and Chris Boucher has been noticeable. Again, it’s going to have to be offense by committee for Toronto, and both looked great against the Nets. Against a tougher Boston defense, though, they’ve disappeared. A question looms: when does Nurse break the glass on Matt Thomas?