The Boston Celtics stole Game 2 from the Toronto Raptors behind a scorching hot fourth quarter. Marcus Smart once again acted as the unlikely focal point of Boston’s perimeter shooting onslaught, so now it stands to reason coach Nick Nurse will have to include him in the game plan. Right?
Brad Stevens and his Celtics came prepared to counter, taking more above-the-break perimeter shots as the Raptors were able to execute their defense to take away the corner 3. That was enough to take the game away from Nurse and Toronto, who looked unaware that Smart was killing the Raptors from the perimeter. Again.
There you go, the Raptors are now facing a must-win game, and Nurse has to fill a tall order to find the right combination and/or changes to get their first win. He needs to do a better job of unlocking a team that was supposed to have the depth advantage, and a committee of players from which anyone can have a big night.
Maybe we can help.
If there’s any consolation here, Pascal Siakam is starting to figure out what’s working for him and what is most definitely not. He’s starting to get a good read on what to do based on his matchups and the Celtics’ defensive scheme. If he’s got Jaylen Brown on him, he should be able to get his buckets as long as he makes a quick and robust move.
It’s still a struggle for him when he’s backing down Marcus Smart or taking too long in the post/paint area. That’s when he should know that a kickout would be ideal — presuming he’s able to draw a slight double-team, which isn’t guaranteed. It’s good to see Siakam handle the ball more as it allows him to add more variety to his attack.
It also helped that (at least in the first three quarters) Siakam saw some better off-ball movement from his teammates when he had the ball. This came via screen actions or cutting/relocating on the weakside. That was enough to make the Celtics’ defenders stay with their coverage, and swirl them just enough to allow Siakam to find his teammates.
Siakam did fade in the second half, however, even if his defense and playmaking were much better than in Game 1. It’s up to Nurse to get him more involved and get him out of Smart’s jailhouse if needed. If anything, Nurse failed to get him in screen actions in the fourth to get some switches on to Boston’s weakest crunch time defender (Kemba Walker). Credit goes to Stevens for keeping the Celtics safe from that.
Fatigue could be a factor — Siakam played 43 minutes, including the entire second half, in Game 2. And unlike, say, when LeBron James does it, Siakam has to play all-out on both ends. Toronto needs him very sharp on defense to survive at all.
While I agree with Nurse that the refs took great care of Jayson Tatum, he was outstanding in Game 2. He was able to shed his defender and get to his spots while taking advantage of the Raptors’ slower bigs, who — even after watching Tatum torch Joel Embiid’s drop coverage in the previous round — employed the same strategy. Tatum is getting better and better at making reads on how the defense will react to his screen actions. It also helped that he had screeners who are good at rolling to the basket, trapping the Raptors bigs in-between coverage. That’s all he needed in Game 2.
(Note: Since everything is humming for the Celtics, we’re focusing today’s piece on the Raptors only.)
Starting Lineup Change
If the Raptors have to make any lineup changes, the lowest hanging fruit would have to be in the starting lineup. The Raptors’ defense have been solid for the most part to start each half, proving Marc Gasol’s value as their defensive anchor. However, it has been a problem for the Raptors on the other end. Gasol’s inability to be a factor offensively has been around since his trade to Toronto, but they need him to step up now more than ever.
With Gasol on the floor, the Celtics bigs are just ignoring him, even if he’s got the ball in his hands. That makes it really hard for his teammates, especially Siakam, as the Celtics are crowding the paint.
The logical move here is to flip Marc Gasol for Serge Ibaka. Ibaka gives the Raptors’ starting lineup more scoring punch, without sacrificing a lot on defense. Ibaka at his best is also quicker and more mobile than Gasol, which could be an asset if Toronto’s centre has to cover more ground when rotating.
Rotation: Finding the Right Combo for Change of Pace
Norman Powell was supposed to be the guy for the Raptors off the bench. He was that against Brooklyn Nets, averaging 17.5 points while shooting 45 percent from deep. Unfortunately, he’s crashed back to earth, and it could not have happened at a worse time. Powell is down to averaging seven points per game while shooting 29 percent behind the arc in the series.
As a result, Nurse tried Chris Boucher and Terence Davis in Game 2, but both failed to make a dent. Davis’ inability to not foul often was taken advantage of by the Celtics, as they hunted for him on switches with Jayson Tatum. So, even though the pace and activity were better with Boucher and Davis on the floor, it didn’t amount to much in the boxscore for Toronto.
Matt Thomas, meanwhile, got some garbage time run in Game 1, but did not play in Game 2. It looks like his reputation as a marksman is already on most teams’ radar, as teams have hounded him off the line when he’s on the floor. But it’s worth considering Thomas if only for his ability to warp defenses alone.
Since the Raptors’ defense against the Celtics is trending in the right direction, maybe, just maybe, Thomas can get some rotation minutes? His gravity as a three-point shooter might open up the floor for Siakam and their slashers. And if Boston makes the mistake of sagging off him, I’m pretty sure the entire fanbase would be confident in Mr. 99%.
Small Ball Lineup
Nick Nurse hasn’t used an OG Anunoby/Pascal Siakam PF/C combo outside of semi-garbage time. At this point, it’s worth revisiting a Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby-Siakam lineup. The biggest question mark here is if it’s worth putting Powell in as the fifth guy, or go random with Boucher, Davis, or Thomas.
The Celtics are more than willing to let Serge Ibaka get all the shots, so maybe it’s time for Nurse to roll the dice with this lineup, as long as Anunoby or Siakam are not in foul trouble. It may be the way to shake things up and speed up the pace in Toronto’s favour.
As mentioned above, Siakam played 43 minutes in Game 2, including the entire second half. VanVleet played 43 minutes as well, getting a quick breather early in the fourth. Kyle Lowry played 40 minutes, and Ibaka looked gassed playing 13 minutes straight between the third and fourth quarters, after which he had to be subbed out. Could fatigue finally be the culprit for the Raptors?
Considering the way Toronto defends and how, say, Lowry and VanVleet make concerted efforts to get into the defense’s teeth, it makes sense to see some fade. The Raptors are now 21-for-80 from the perimeter in two games; that’s a lot of bricked three-pointers. Looking at their perimeter shooting per quarter, the Raptors have shot better in the first and third quarters — compared to the second — and they’ve been even worse in the fourth.
If this is the case, Nurse has to do a better job keeping his key guys fresh. They are not getting two days rest in between games, unlike in the usual playoff schedule. And even without travel, it appears it’s starting to take it’s toll. Nurse may have to use his bench better to buy some rest for the starters and not ride them to the ground. Hmm, perhaps he needs to call coach Budenholzer for some advice on minutes management.