Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors faced a lot of questions about fatigue heading into their Game 5 matchup with the Boston Celtics. And boy, did those questions get answered... but not in any sort of way we wanted to see.
Before we begin, many kids in Canada are going back to school today and over the next week. We’ve spoken about education reform already, but the pandemic is revealing even more inequity in our education systems in Canada. Not every family can afford to keep their kids out of school — they don’t have computers or wi-fi at home, don’t have household help, can’t afford tutors and so on — but they often live in neighbourhoods that are hardest hit by COVID-19. This article from The Globe and Mail outlines some of the ways this inequity is revealing itself; the anecdote about kids living in high-rises, who might have to leave home an hour earlier just to get on the elevator thanks to COVID restrictions, is eye-opening. To learn more and see if there’s something you can do to help, check out Pathways to Education.
Meanwhile I wish all teachers, students and parents good health and safety — and good luck — as you head back to school.
Let’s get to the thoughts:
1. Too Tired to Compete
Fatigue should never be an excuse for professional athletes, and I also don’t want to take away from a sensational Boston defensive effort last night. But man, did the Raptors ever look gassed. Missing layups. Bobbling good passes. Getting blown by, again and again and again.
Nick Nurse said he needed to play his best guys big minutes in Games 3 and 4 because that’s what they needed to do to stay competitive in the series. And I don’t disagree with that at all. Unfortunately, you reap what you sow; Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam just weren’t into the game last night from the opening minutes.
Despite this, and a dominant Celtics performance, Lowry and VanVleet each played 34 minutes — and Siakam would have too, I’m sure, if not for foul trouble. So while I 100% agree with their usage in Games 3 and 4, I vehemently disagree with it last night. There was no reason for them to stay in the game past the six minute mark of the third quarter. And when VanVleet came out for the fourth?! I’m not sure what Nurse was thinking there. This may come back to haunt the Raptors in Game 6.
2. The Siakam-at-Centre Lineup was a Bust
The Raptors finally rolled at their small lineup with Pascal Siakam at centre last night and the results were... underwhelming. The group matched up with a centre-less Celtics lineup in the first half, but it was the second half where we really got a look at it. And it wasn’t a good look.
Against the Celtics starters, the group went -4 in 2:12 in the third quarter, with six of Boston’s eight points coming at the rim or on free throws (and Pascal Siakam somehow picking up three fouls in the stretch). On the offensive end, the Raptors, looking out of sorts as they did most of the night, couldn’t get into any mismatches, and missed two three-pointers and a Siakam floater.
I don’t think we’ll be seeing that lineup again.
3. Too much Freddy V
Somebody please explain to me what the heck this is:
So Fred dibbles around the Gasol screen, then... steps back? And allows Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis to re-set, negating the switch advantage? Gasol doesn’t roll until after VanVleet steps back... and now there are four seconds on the shot clock? So VanVleet has to barrel into traffic, with Gasol literally running right beside him.
That’s one truly bizarre pick-and-roll, guys.
Overall, VanVleet had a horrendous first half, just doing all the things you don’t want to see VanVleet doing: Overdribbling, missing his bigs on the roll, driving into the tall trees and getting his shot blocked (and ending up on the ground six feet behind the play). He was better in the second half, but I go back to the point I made after Game 1: The Raptors should use some halfcourt possessions with Fred as a more traditional two-guard. Run him baseline off multiple screens, set some pin downs, get him on the move. I know he’s not Rip Hamilton but he’s an excellent catch-and-shoot bomber.
Speaking of Movement...
4. Stuck in the Mud
The Raptors aren’t great in the halfcourt on offense. We all know this to be true. But man, do they make it hard on themselves at times. I mentioned getting VanVleet moving above, but at times, nobody was moving. Look at this play, with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam glued to the corners, Marc Gasol moving about three whole steps, and Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell basically occupying the same space up top:
You’re not gonna generate many good looks with your offense looking like that.
Last game I also mentioned getting Marc Gasol the ball in the high post and getting the wings, particularly OG Anunoby, moving on cuts. So I was happy to see that happen early, once (OG blew the layup), but it never happened again. Gasol has looked completely uncomfortable on offense; his not looking to score is one thing, but lately it seems he wants to get rid of the rock before a play even develops.
All told the offense is just painful to watch at times. The Celtics are an awesome defensive team, but the Raptors have to start moving without the ball more.
5. Bench Losses
Who had Brad Wanamaker being the best bench player in this series? No? Robert Williams III? Semi Ojeleye? No matter which way you look at it, the Celtics bench has completely outplayed Toronto’s, with players like Wanamaker and Ojeleye hitting timely three-pointers and Williams III being a force inside.
The complete disappearance of Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka’s struggles on the defensive end, have left the Raptors with about 5.5 playable guys (and with Marc Gasol being a negative on offense, well, it’s really just five). Coming into this series I would have said Toronto’s depth would be an advantage. Not thrilled to be wrong about that one.
Perhaps Nick Nurse saw something in the fourth quarter that will change Game 6? I doubt it. Matt Thomas was great last night, but Nick doesn’t trust him on defense, and Terence Davis’ shot looked off in his garbage time minutes (then again, his shot usually looks better when he’s playing alongside Kyle Lowry...).
It looks like we’ll have to trust the Raptors starters to get it done in big minutes in Game 6.
For the first time since Game 7 in the second round last year, the Raptors are in a win-or-go-home situation. They don’t have Kawhi Leonard to bail them out this time; all they have are their resiliency, toughness, and championship experience. It might be enough. We’ll find out tomorrow.