If you missed last night’s Toronto Raptors game, you might have had a reaction similar to this: They gave up 126 points? To those Celtics??
We have indeed reached the “incredulous loss” stage of this Toronto Raptors season, a mere six games in. The Raptors were fully and completely dismantled by the Boston Celtics last night, 126-114, with only a late garbage time spurt making the score somewhat respectable. The Raptors played well for the first six minutes and the last five, but in between, they were outscored 111-77.
Everything is a mess right now for Toronto. Let’s dig in!
1. Pascal Problems
May as well get this out of the way, since everyone is blaming everything on Pascal Siakam anyway: he was better last night, but still far from what the Raptors need him to be.
Three times in the first quarter last night, he had Tristan Thompson guarding him, and all three times, proved unable or unwilling to him off the dribble. First, he drove into the lane but picked up his dribble, allowing Thompson to recover, and he passed out:
Second, he didn’t look to take Thompson at all, and instead dribbled into a DHO with VanVleet, getting the switch:
Third, he bobbled the ball on his drive...
...and although he got it back, with Thompson still guarding him, he waited for Jaylen Brown to switch back — and then just settled for a three (which he made).
All of this is to say that the “old” Siakam would have been able to beat Tristan Thompson off the dribble. Take a look at what VanVleet does to TT here:
Just a little crossover-hesitation move put Thompson on his toes. We’ve seen Pascal do that before, too, but he can’t seem to get there right now, and honestly, I just don’t understand why.
But, just so that we’re not all negative on Pascal here, we’ll give a shoutout to this third-quarter sequence, surely his best of the year:
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder; well, I am very fond of such plays, and in their absence, I really, really miss them.
2. Flynn Gets In
We finally saw the long-awaited (non-garbage time) debut of Malachi Flynn last night, and it was... OK.
In a surprise move, Nick Nurse called on Flynn as the team’s sixth man last night, and had him replace Kyle Lowry and play with the starters. It seemed like it might be a good choice, since with the four starters not much would be demanded of him.
Flynn didn’t score, but Nick Nurse has been stressing defense lately, and that’s where it’s clear Flynn has work to do. He doesn’t seem fully adjust to NBA game speed yet, and is generally just a step slow.
Look at this closeout on Semi Ojeleye; Flynn is in the right spot, shading to the paint when the ball is on the strong side, but he hesitates there for a second — just enough to make his closeout a step late.
Here, Flynn is a step slow going over this Grant Williams screen in transition — look again at the slight hesitation as Flynn scoots around — and Payton Pritchard has a straight downhill line to the hoop with Flynn well behind. (Credit where it’s due, this is a heads-up play from Pritchard in a semi-transition situation.)
Third, Flynn again does the right thing here, digging down from the wing as Jaylen Brown drives. But his angle isn't quite right, and he gets too deep, leaving Pritchard wide open.
If anything, Pritchard’s performance last night (23 points on 13 shots with eight assists) made Flynn’s seem that much worse; Pritchard was taken a mere three spots higher in the 2020 draft than Flynn. But he’s also been playing regular minutes all season, with Kemba Walker sidelined, and is more used to the game speed and better integrated into what the Celtics are doing.
So such a performance was not unexpected from Flynn in his first real minutes; he’ll get there, with time. The question is whether or not Nick Nurse will let him play through it.
3. Nick Nurse Plays the Blues
I questioned Nick Nurse’s rotation in the last Five Thoughts, and I certainly questioned his praise for Stanley Johnson and slagging of Matt Thomas yesterday afternoon.
Nick Nurse wasn't messing around today. He demands defence from his guys pic.twitter.com/oINvYQL0jG— (@AaronBenRose) January 4, 2021
It’s true the Raptors are better defensively with Johnson, but, they’re also significantly worse offensively:
So far, Matt Thomas and Stanley Johnson have played roughly the same # of minutes in virtually the same role, but have produced very different (and not unexpected) results.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 4, 2021
Raps with Thomas on the floor: 99.0 Ortg, 111.7 Drtg
Raps with Johnson: 81.4 Ortg, 86.5 Drtg
But seeing those numbers does make me step back and consider what Nurse is trying to do here. He (seemingly) doesn’t have a single bench player who can consistently play well on both sides of the ball. Heck, outside of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, he doesn’t have a single starter playing consistently well!
So, I get it: he's searching for something that works. With Stanley, I think Nurse at least knows exactly what his limitations are, and knows that he’ll get good solid effort on D. He can’t really say the same for anyone else.
That means there’s a huge opportunity available for someone to step up and take those minutes. Paul Watson got a brief look yesterday: Might it be him?
4. Oversold on Aron Baynes
So, does Aron Baynes suck? It maybe, kinda, sorta looks like he does? None of the good things we expected of him — and I wrote about it, and Sean Wrote about it — have materialized, and in fact, more weaknesses than were previously apparent have come to light.
Yeah, I’m talking about his inability to catch a simple pocket pass, and his inability to finish at the rim.
Where are the defense-stretching three-pointers? (He’s 3-for-15 on the year.) Where are the bone-crushing screens that open up the floor for Lowry and Siakam? (He’s averaging two screen assists per game, 39th out of 58 centres who’ve played 15 minutes or more per game.) Where’s the boxing out that allows Siakam and OG Anunoby to grab more boards? (He’s 34th among centres in boxouts, at 2.3 per game (literally just discovered right now that the NBA tracks box-outs!), and although Siakam and Anunoby have seen slight upticks in rebounding numbers, the Raptors are 28th in defensive rebounding percentage.)
Yep, it’s pretty bad. Alex Len got the start in the second half last night, and I think he earned it, and I think we’ll see a lot more Boucher minutes going forward.
5. No Shot Creation
It’s eye-opening watching guys like Jaylen Brown and especially Jayson Tatum, who are able to get to their spots and generate quality offensive looks both within the flow of Boston’s offense, or by simply isolating, or by making something happen when things break down. And it’s very clear that the things they do on the offensive are completely missing from the Raptors.
The Raptors literally don’t have a single player who can reliably create his own shot. Both Lowry and VanVleet can kinda get there with head fakes and/or grifting but what is there beyond that? Powell was reliable last year, but has regressed; Siakam used to be able to generate offense with his creativity around the hoop but has also regressed.
The Raptors don’t even have an “irrational confidence” guy who just comes in and looks to make things happen for himself, for better or worse. I mean, it’s usually for the worse, but every once in while said player goes off and at least makes something happen. Right now no one is making anything happen.
Anyone have Dion Waiters’ number??
So now the Raptors head out West for four games, and I’m afraid this isn’t gonna be one of those “on the road, building chemistry” trips that fixes everything. They’ve been on the road all season, after all (not to mention the end of last season too), and it’s not like they’re gonna be going out and having team dinners and bowling outings and stuff.
In other words: Things are more likely to get even more ugly before they turn around, if they ever do. Prepare thyselves!