Through three weeks of basketball, it’s been hard to square away how different the 2020-21 Raptors look than the 2019-20 version of the same team. A couple faces aren’t here, sure, but much of the core has remained intact. The joyous, up tempo style from Toronto’s pre-bubble play has been nowhere to be found since — and in its stead, the questions keep adding up with no answers to be found.
A nightmare start to the season continued for the Raptors on Monday, as they were thoroughly beaten by the Celtics, 126-114. The rematch between two teams that met in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinal was dominated by Jayson Tatum, who dropped 40 points on just 19 shots, adding six rebounds, two assists, and a block.
Toronto had no answers for Tatum. Similar to their playoff series in the fall, they struggled with defending him without fouling — sending the young forward to the charity stripe where he went a perfect 13-for-13.
They didn’t do much to make up for it on the other end, either. Another red hot start saw the team go up double-digits, sure, but apart from an outstanding showing from Fred VanVleet — 35 points (13-for-20), eight rebounds, three assists, two steals — production just wasn’t there.
Freddy's lay-up package is ELITE pic.twitter.com/IaBrE6ShVS— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 5, 2021
The Raptors bench had just one field goal in the first half, while Pascal Siakam scored most of his 22 points with Toronto already down big, as Nick Nurse kept his starters in a blowout to try to work out some kinks.
Kyle Lowry had 18 points in support, marking just a -5 despite the world caving around him. That guy.
The start was great for Toronto, as it has been through most of their games this season. Lowry, Siakam, and VanVleet all hit threes in the opening three minutes as the team stormed out to a 17-5 lead at the first stoppage. The Raptors were playing with energy, and taking advantage of an undersized Celtics lineup missing several bodies, including Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart. With 5’10” Tremont Waters thrust into the starting lineup, Toronto did the right thing and attacked from their backcourt. Fred went 4-for-4 from deep in the frame, as the Raptors went into the second up 32-23.
As soon as the bench came in, though, the good vibes evaporated. A pre-game airing of grievances by Nick Nurse included the fact that Stanley Johnson would continue to earn minutes near the top of the rotation. He did so on Monday (following a surprise burst for Malachi Flynn, who struggled in team defence) and Johnson’s minutes almost directly lined up to the Raptors’ collapse. In a series of events in the second, Johnson lost a steal out of bounds, Norman Powell attempted a floater from the free throw line, and Johnson missed a wide open three.
The Celtics capitalized and then some: Tatum had 21 of his 40 in the second quarter alone, as Boston would go on a 20-6 run while the Raptors dropped to below 50% on shots in the paint. It looked a bit like the playoff series on both ends, but the fight just wasn’t there for Toronto. The Celtics went into halftime up 15.
The second half didn’t provide any answers for the Raptors. Siakam had a nice stretch in the third, blocking a shot and finishing a dunk, but it never materialized into momentum for the team. Again, production just wasn’t there. OG Anunoby went 3-for-8, scoring ten points. Aron Baynes and Alex Len were scoreless in 23 combined minutes at centre. Powell was 1-for-6 and marked a -15.
Luckily, the Raptors’ third unit made the score a little more friendly in the fourth. Yuta Watanabe provided some energy, making a three and playing some frenetic defense. With the lead down to ten, though, the Celtics brought their starters back and closed the door in the final 2:30.
When so much is going wrong at the same time, it’s hard to prescribe a fix that’ll turn things around in the short-term. For now, the Raptors just have to work on one thing at a time. Their next game is against Phoenix on Wednesday.