The Toronto Raptors starters didn’t look like much against the Boston Celtics starters on Tuesday night, but once both teams went to their benches, it was a completely different story.
Despite being stuck with a 19-point deficit late in the third, the back end of the Raptors roster — led by a bunch of guys with non-guaranteed contracts, including Jeff Dowtin, Josh Jackson, DJ Wilson and Gabe Brown — took the Celtics to OT, where they outscored the home team 15-9 en route to a 125-119 win.
The win moves the Raptors to 2-0 in the preseason, while the defending Eastern Conference Champions fall to 1-1. Both teams played their starters more than I thought they would, with most of the “core rotation” players on both sides getting between 23 and 30 minutes. Jaylen Brown continued the strong play he showed in the 2022 NBA Finals, leading all scorers with 23 points on 14 shots. Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa and Josh Jackson and paced the Raptors with 13 apiece.
The Celtics took control late in the first quarter, and were fairly dominant through three quarters — as long as both teams were playing their main guys, basically.
As the teams went to the benches in the closing minutes of the third quarter, though, things began to shift. Dalano Banton and Christian Koloko got the door cracked open with solid play late in the third, and when Nick Nurse went really deep in the fourth, the Raptors’ energy and effort simply overtook the Celtics, who looked like they thought the game was already over.
Jackson, Dowtin, Wilson and Brown combined to shoot 11-15 in the fourth as the Raptors outscored the Celtics 38-20 in the frame. But a crucial call late nearly handed things back to the Celtics. Leading 108-106, the Raptors let Sam Hauser — who scored 22 points on 12 shots — get an open lane to the hoop. DJ Wilson slid in to take the charge, and it first it looked like he made it in time; the officials initially called a charge before they overturned it on a coach’s challenge. And because Hauser’s bucket dropped on the play, the offensive foul was now a defensive foul, and an and-1. Hauser sank the free throw, giving Boston the 109-108 lead. After a Downtin miss and a Brodric Thomas free throw, the Raptors trailed 110-108 with 24.5 seconds to go. Dowtin tied the game on a pull-up with 10 seconds to go, and Peyton Pritchard missed a runner at the buzzer.
Pritchard finished with 17 for the Celtics.
As fun as the second half was, the first seemed to expose several flaws with this Raptors team (and yes, we’ll add the caveat that it’s still very early in the preseason!). With both teams playing their core rotations in the first half, the differences between the two teams was apparent; the Celtics get into their offense, and generate quality looks, at much higher rate than the Raptors do. Having creators like Brown and Tatum — who can put the defense on their heels, and get their way to the rim, thus creating extra space for everyone else — makes such a huge difference. The Raptors just don’t have that level of creator on the floor. Siakam has it to an extent; Trent can generate decent looks for himself, but doesn’t put pressure on the rim; VanVleet is crafty but too small to be a real threat on the drive.
But beyond rim pressure, the Celtics just move the ball with so much more intention than the Raptors do. Passes come quickly, often to players on the move; with the Raptors, it’s the opposite — players move with the ball, and pass it to players standing still. And the Raptors still don’t have consistent long-range shooters.
And beyond all of that… the Raptors still seem allergic to the most basic play in basketball, the pick and roll. With multiple players capable of handling the ball, plus some solid roll men in Birch, Achiuwa and Koloko you’d think a high-screen oriented offense would make sense, and yet — the Raptors rarely run simple pick and roll sets.
In any event, if you needed more evidence of all of the above that what your eyes showed you, just look at the box score. The Celtics assisted on 15 of their 22 first-half field goals, shot 50%, and hit seven threes. The Raptors? Five assists, 18 field goals, 36% shooting, two made three-pointers.
VanVleet — who played 19 first half minutes, shot 3-for-12, and picked up a soft tech after complaining about a missed and-1 call — spent the second half on the bench. Precious Achiuwa started in his place, and promptly hit a three... then bricked two more. Scottie Barnes showed some flashes in the early third, including a nice up-and-under to avoid Grant Williams, then used those long strides of his to scoot around Jayson Tatum and score at the rim. O.G. Anunoby also showed some of that old Anunoby strength, backing down Marcus Smart and dunking over him; he also had a nice dish to Precious (on the move!) who was fouled going up for the jam.
But hey, the preseason isn’t about the starters, is it? It’s about the other guys! Let’s circle back, to Dalano Banton and Christian Koloko. I’ll admit I was pretty impressed with both their play tonight, but especially Koloko. After just two games, he’s shown himself to be much more NBA-ready than I thought he’d be. For one, he’s bigger than looked in a lot of his college footage; more muscle, bigger shoulders. But also, he seems to just have that feel for the game that you don’t always see in so-called “project” picks. He seems to know where to go on the floor. Beyond that, his skills seem to be more advanced than I thought, too. He showed nice hustle in the first half, tracking down a VanVleet miss (that led to a FVV relocation three); he also, briefly, stayed in front of Jayson Tatum on a drive, before getting popped in the face and getting a bloody nose as a result. When he came back in the third quarter, he got a quick post-up opportunity, and backed his way down into a pretty little hook shot over Derrick White, then blocked a Brogdon drive on the other end. He even opened the fourth quarter scoring with a baseline J!
As for Banton, he continued his strong play from the Jazz game; I love the aggression he’s showing so far, just using his size, speed and his long strides to get into the teeth of the defense and cause havoc. The end result doesn’t always work, but at least he’s making things happen.
The Raptors will now travel to Texas, where they’ll play the Houston Rockets on Friday night.