At least this one wasn’t over at halftime.
The Raptors played a much better game of basketball last night than they did in Sunday’s Game 1, and that made it a more entertaining game to watch. Or, more frustrating, perhaps, that they played well, and still lost.
Either way it was definitely more stressful. If nothing else, it finally felt like Raptors playoff basketball!
Before I get to the thoughts, a note about prison populations here in Canada. I mentioned this the other day, but 8% of Canada’s prison population is made up of Black people, and 30% is made up of Indigenous people. That’s way out of whack when compared to our national population, which is only 3% Black and 5% Indigenous. It’s almost like our police forces and our courts treat people of color differently than white people... oh wait, that’s exactly what it is. You can learn more about this here, and continue to put pressure on your MPs and MPPs by writing to them and asking them to back legislation to reform our criminal justice system.
On to the thoughts.
1. Find a Way to Respond
It was definitely bizarre to see Marcus Smart catch fire and score 16 straight points to open the fourth quarter. That’s the very definition of “outlier.” The Raptors contested all but the first of Smart’s five threes pretty well; when a player is in that zone, there’s just not much you can do
Except, you know, score on the other end. Which the Raptors failed to do.
Trotting out a lineup of Norman Powell, Chris Boucher, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, the Raptors looked out of sync on offense. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as how this was the first time that group had ever shared the floor together.
It did produce this rather hilarious stat line:
Nick Nurse went back to Lowry in place of VanVleet after two minutes, and that generated a couple of good looks, including an open Powell three off of an offensive rebound and a Siakam floater, that simply didn’t drop.
All in all the Celtics outscored the Raptors by nine in Smart’s run, and combined with the four straight that Jayson Tatum scored before that, it was a 20-7 Celtics run over a 6:50 stretch.
You can’t score only seven points in seven minutes. It was bad timing that Smart went off while the Raptors were playing a transitional lineup, sure, but the team needs to be able to generate better offense.
2. Curious Rotations
I said after Game 1 I was looking forward to seeing what adjustments Nick Nurse made for Game 2, and while I was glad to see Chris Boucher out there, I’m not sure Nurse used him in the right spots.
When Boucher first entered the game, Robert Williams was on the floor, and that seemed to make sense; Boucher should be a good counter to William’s energy. But when Williams subbed out, Boucher stuck around, playing beside Serge Ibaka against Daniel Theis. I’m not sure what benefit an Ibaka-Boucher front court offers against Theis, or, really, against anyone. The same thing happened in the second half, and was made worse by the fact that Boucher was out there without Lowry, with whom he’s proven most effective (well, OK, everyone is more effective with Lowry).
Nurse has also declined to use a Siakam-at-centre lineup, a different look that might introduce some more mismatches on offense (and might cause some chaos on the other end, if the Celtics go out of their way to take advantage.
None of this matters, of course, if the Raptors hit a few more shots. But the Celtics are really damn good, and their defense is not suddenly going to become easier to score against. A little more creativity
3. Crunch Time Guard Screen and Roll! Uh, but, Wrong Guard
The Raptors have proven that a guard screening for Pascal Siakam can be effective at creating mismatches and good scoring opportunities. So I was glad to see that, down 3 with 30 seconds to go, the Raptors didn’t just rely on isolating Pascal Siakam up top — a guard came up to set a screen for him.
Except that guard was Fred VanVleet, and his defender was Marcus Smart. Overall, the play “worked” — the Celtics switched, the Raptors cleared the lane, and Smart was defending Siakam on an island.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in this series so far it’s that Smart guarding Siakam is not a mismatch. Smart, of course, stripped Siakam on the drive, and nearly saved the ball too.
Credit to the Celtics, who seemed prepared for this on the inbounds; Jayson Tatum was guarding Lowry, and they hid Kemba Walker on OG Anunoby. (I might have preferred the Tatum matchup. Alas.)
Ultimately I’m happy that the Raptors didn’t just go iso; NBA games tend to feature isolation play almost exclusively in crush time, and it drives me a little batty. Unfortunately, the personnel they had executing the play fell right into Boston’s hands.
(Credit the Raps, too, for a decent play on the ensuing inbounds — Serge Ibaka set a nice baseline screen on Jaylen Brown, freeing Siakam, who, if he hadn’t stepped out of bounds, had either a lane to the hoop or Ibaka ready for the drop-off.)
4. OG Action
It was great to see OG Anunoby get more involved on offense last night; the Raptors were looking for him in the corners and he made the Celtics pay, and he found his way to the rim on a coupe of nice cuts, too. The Celtics don’t seem to be too worried about Anunoby, and while that doesn’t mean the Raptors should force their offense through him, I think he’s proven he can be an effective outlet for Siakam and VanVleet on drives.
On defense, Anunoby was impressive one-on-one once again, but I’ve noticed a disturbing habit OG has of running into shooters when he fights around screens. He puts on the extra speed to fight through, but then can’t slow down once he does, and boom, he’s colliding into the offensive player.
5. Downhill, too Easy
Speaking of screens, I’m impressed how well Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum turn the corner on screens, get downhill and give themselves space between the three-point line and the hoop. The Raptors are good at defending screen and rolls, both at fighting through and switching, but Walker and Tatum have a step that gets them into that space and draws a third defender into no man’s land time and time again — all of which leads to either an open look for them or a drop off to a cutting big man (usually Williams). It also leaves said big man open for uncontested offensive rebounds. (The fact that Walker missed 12 shots was a lucky break for the Raptors.)
I don’t know what the answer is to this one, other than fight through screens better without fouling, which, you know, easier said than done. Overall the Raptors were much sharper last night on D than they were in Game 1, but they’ll need to be sharper still — especially if they continue to struggle on offense.
I have to say through two games of this series have reminded me way too much of the Raptors from 2016-2018, in just how difficult it is for them to generate good offensive possessions. I’m gritting my teeth through every halfcourt possession.
But there’s one difference this time around: The Raptors are now NBA Champions. I know it’s easy to forget in the heat of the playoffs, but let’s remember: It happened, it’s real, and all this right now, it’s all just gravy.
(I’d still like this to go six or seven games, though, please!)