How about that? The Toronto Raptors were on the brink of an impossible 0-3 hole against the Boston Celtics last Thursday, and now Nick Nurse and his team are back to square one with momentum on their side.
The TNT feed caught Brad Stevens, giving his team a pep talk before the game: “There’s no... extra defensive calls that we should know by now ... We just need to be the best version of ourselves.” Unfortunately for Stevens and the Celtics, they were at a bit of a loss with the Raptors’ defensive approach in Game 4. There’s also an effort and/or mental toughness issue in play, as they had a few players who no-showed as well.
Nurse and his Raptors doubled down on his array of defensive schemes, often switching things up on the same possession. The Raptors also played with a greater sense of urgency, making things difficult for the Celtics, and being sure to dive for the loose ball.
As a major plus, the Raptors’ three-point shooting started to normalize. And while that three-point barrage didn’t include Pascal Siakam, he figured out how to score in other ways. Meanwhile, the Celtics’ offense has fallen to the earth. Their stars struggled to get anything going against the Raptors’ defense. Even Tatum’s 24 points were some of the more challenging he’s maybe ever scored.
I did not have any suggestions for the Celtics just a couple of games ago, as they seem to be pushing all the right buttons. But now things have flopped for the Celtics — worse than any of Marcus Smart’s try-hard plays. They might be prime for some significant adjustments, and we have some suggestions below.
Kemba Walker running around in the paint puts a ton of pressure on the Raptors’ defense. Daniel Theis’ almost game-winner can be Exhibit #1. So in Game 4, Nurse prioritized getting the ball out of Walker’s hand.
Fred VanVleet went with face-guarding Walker for the most part, fighting through screens and avoiding switches when possible. He knows that leaving Walker to help somewhere else should only happen with time running out. VanVleet would also pick up Walker full-court and mix in a blitzing scheme to funnel him to the sideline, forcing him to give up the ball. It was an effective approach, for the most part.
Maybe it’s because of Toronto’s zone — or maybe it’s a strategy — but the lesser Celtics players always seemed to be open for the pass, and open enough to be able to do something off the ball. Sure, Walker racked up assists, but that meant extended periods of not shooting the ball. Walker ended up attempting only three shots in the second half, as he watched his teammates brick their shots against the Raptors’ defense.
Defensively, the Raptors put a lot of pressure on Walker, targeting him on screen actions, with Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, and Siakam taking turns attacking him. Was Walker being too passive, or was he just making the right play? It looks like the Raptors are willing to risk Jaylen Brown and/or Marcus Smart getting hot, as long as they can stop Walker and slow down Tatum. Either way, a possession not dealing with Walker is a win for the Raptors.
Evolving Siakam Touches
Pascal Siakam’s confidence is on an upswing, and a change of shot selection is behind it. Gone are the multiple 90s-style post-ups where we all watched Siakam back his man down trying to make his move with multiple Celtics stunting. Toronto’s primary option shifted to Kyle Lowry’s dribble-drive penetration, with Fred VanVleet acting as the secondary playmaker early on.
Siakam still gets his touches via spot-ups or facing up. In the second half, Siakam got more touches on the low block, but instead of backing his defender down, he faced up and varied his attacks with a midrange jumper, a decisive post-up, and a faceup drive to the basket.
Siakam was also rim-running again and ended the night going 8-for-10 inside the arc. Now, if Siakam can get his three-ball going, we can officially declare that his slump is over.
Matching up Time Lord with Marc Gasol
A little aside here: Brad Stevens made a peculiar move early in Game 4, subbing out Daniel Theis for Robert Williams 2.5 minutes into the game. The Celtics aimed to exploit Gasol’s lack of foot speed by leaning on the more explosive Williams. He’s acted as excellent pick-and-roll target for this series, but it didn’t shift things as much as Boston would have hoped.
Stevens and the Celtics learned they can’t play Enes Kanter for sure — but the centre battle went decisively Toronto’s way in Game 4, and it was a difference maker.
For the Celtics:
Start Time Lord
Inserting Williams to the starting lineup might make the Celtics’ offense more potent, a gamble that might throw the Raptors defense off, which could be just enough to get their key players going.
However, this move may come with a risk. In the second half, the Raptors involved Williams on their pick-and-roll sets, and he ended up committing back-to-back-to-back errors that led to three consecutive three-pointers, which earned him a quick hook. It has been encouraging to see Gasol and Serge Ibaka gradually play there way up in this series, after Theis and Williams looked to be having their way.
Get into Early Transition
Good things happen when the Celtics push the pace and get into their offense early. For one, it creates cross matches, and there’s a chance that the Raptors defense might not be as ready compared to when they take their time.
Kemba Walker likes to get a high screen early into the shot clock and fire a three-pointer within the first eight seconds of the possession. On the other hand, Jayson Tatum likes to bring the ball down after a rebound and pull up from the perimeter early.
Walker and Tatum combined for 1-for-12 from the perimeter in Game 4. Walker did not get a lot of opportunities to use pick-and-roll actions to create daylight from the perimeter. Even when he was able to, the Raptors have done a great job getting their bigs to show harder, while VanVleet made sure Kemba knew he wasn’t far off. Meanwhile, Tatum did not have the opportunity to take an early transition three-pointer.
This could play into the Raptors’ hands, but the Celtics like to play with pace, and I would expect them to push it to get these early transition points, especially on the perimeter.
Give Kemba’s Ball Back
The Raptors have done a great job limiting Kemba Walker’s opportunities to score. He got just nine field-goal attempts in Game 4. A vital part of the strategy is to make him more of a passer and push his teammates to execute the offense. While Walker ended up with eight assists, there were plenty of possessions where his teammates had to take off-kilter shots; or worse, they just straight-up turned it over.
Walker is giving the ball up early on offense (or in some cases, working off the ball), so there’s no reason why the ball shouldn’t find him again. Good things happen when he’s able to get in the paint, attracting the Raptors defense, and setting up his teammates for better shots if he can’t get his own. Expect Kemba to be more aggressive in Game 5.
For the Raptors:
Double-Down on Drive-and-Kick + Relocation Combo
The Raptors started to get better perimeter looks when Kyle Lowry started attacking the basket in Game 3. This strategy got the attention of the Celtics’ defense, and it evolved into drive-and-kick opportunities. In Game 4, they were able to fine-tune this a bit, sometimes with multiple drive-and-kick plays in the same possession.
VanVleet back-to-back threes— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 6, 2020
5/10 from deep today pic.twitter.com/FiP2g6oWwM
Toronto’s ball movement was significantly better, and it created a lot of comfortable open looks. Game 4 showcased the re-location ability of the Raptors ball-handlers — Lowry and VanVleet — who would get in the paint, give the ball up, and then move around the perimeter to get the ball back for a wide-open shot. The Celtics defense looked vulnerable, so the Raptors should look to try it some more.
Limit Live-Ball Turnovers
Turnovers are never good, but live-ball turnovers are worse, especially for the Raptors. It allows the Celtics to go for easy baskets, or causes the Raptors to expend too much energy trying to stop that transition attack.
It wasn’t an overwhelming problem, but the Raptors need to be a bit more conservative about their possessions and limit situations where they use up energy unnecessarily. Turnovers like OG Anunoby‘s out of balance attempt to save an errant pass become a transition attack for the Celtics. That’s one of the situations where they should just let it go and focus on stopping the Celtics on the next possession. Worse still, those kind of scrambling plays could lead to someone picking up a foul.
With the Raptors just barely using seven players, they can’t afford their teammates to gas out or get in foul trouble.