The Toronto Raptors’ reputation for poor starts might be history, if last night’s excellent first half against the Boston Celtics is any indication.
Of course, basketball is a game of 48 minutes, and the Raptors — who outscored the Celtics 37-29 in the second quarter to take a 6-point lead into halftime against the best team in basketball — fell apart in the third, getting outscored by 17 in the quarter. Despite coming back to within five late, the Raptors never truly threatened in the fourth, and the Celtics would go on to win 116-110.
Sure, the Celtics are the best team in the league and there’s no shame in losing to them. But you might have at least expected the Celtics — missing Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon, and playing on the second night of a back-to-back — to look like the tired team after halftime.
Instead it was the Raptors who looked lethargic and a step (or several) too slow in that critical third, and the Celtics pretty much shredded them as a result.
Jayson Tatum led all scorers with 31 points, and chipped in a game-high 12 rebounds as well. Jaylen Brown had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
Pascal Siakam finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. Scottie Barnes added 21 points, seven board and four assists, but the biggest standout performance from the Raptors might have come from Fred VanVleet — and not in a good way.
VanVleet looked slow and tentative, or whatever the opposite of aggressive is, on offense. It wasn’t just the 3-for-14 shooting — though that certainly stood out. But just the way he’s dribbling, a lot of side to side, the lack of precision passing, and the shots he’s forcing up from two point range… just a lot of ugly stuff, and not stuff you expect from VanVleet. He’s mentioned multiple times that he’s still not 100% after his illness, but Nick Nurse dismissed that idea after the game, saying he thinks Fred feels fine.
Of his shooting, Nurse said he thought 10 of VanVleet’s shots were pretty good, open shots; even some of those two-pointers that I thought were forced, Nurse said he thought they were good looks. “I think both him and O.G. are our best shooters,” Nurse said, “and O.G. had five open ones too.” He’s confident that’ll swing back Toronto’s way.
But Nurse confirmed that the third quarter was the key. “We had a bunch of wide open shots in the third,” he said, “and didn’t make any of ‘em.” And on the other end, the Celtics “made a whole bunch of well-guarded threes.” Nurse called it a “shot-making stretch” that unfortunately just didn’t go their way.
In terms of seeing the game as a measuring stick, Nurse said that the team executed pretty well, but they know, if they wanna make the jump to get to the level of the Celtics, they need make those plays, and make a few more open shots, to get there.
Pascal Siakam concurred, noting that he thought the Raptors matched Boston’s intensity all game, and if a couple more of those shots go in, it’s a different game. “Things aren’t going to they way you have in your head,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go in — it’s basketball. There’s no other way to say it.” True enough!
For his part, Tatum said that at halftime the Celtics spoke about playing with more energy, more pace, and making the second and third effort — and that’s exactly how they responded in the third.
The Celtics — who came into the game with the best first-quarter point differential in the league — did lead 27-25 after one quarter. Both teams played excellent D in the frame, with Marcus Smart and O.G. Anunoby particular standouts. Siakam, as well, played solid D on Tatum, holding him to just three shots — but it was Smart’s effort on VanVleet, who missed six of eight shots, that stood out.
The Boston Celtics are the best team and especially the best 1Q team in the NBA. So 12-12 midway through the 1Q is good news for the Raptors, who are one of the worst 1Q teams.— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) December 6, 2022
Anunoby did manage a pick-six in the first quarter that got the crowd going; thankfully, he didn’t try to do a 360 on this one.
OG with the steal & slam!— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) December 6, 2022
TOR vs. BOS is live on TSN pic.twitter.com/tC0hCyXAaC
Things turned quickly after the break. O.G. opened the second quarter with another pick-six dunk, and Chris Boucher scored on an OReb then on a lob from Thad Young, giving the Raptors a 34-32 lead.
O.G. back at it again https://t.co/O2uBhXLujf pic.twitter.com/HYUcvhK4XG— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 6, 2022
An Anunoby three at the 6:44 mark gave the Raptors their largest lead, 44-38. Anunoby was also a monster on defense in the second quarter. He forced literally every Celtics starter into a bad shot in the frame, and collectively, the Raptors held Brown and Tatum to 4-of-11 shooting combined in the frame.
After Tatum and Siakam traded triples, the Raptors had a great chance to push their lead to 8 or 9. But Barnes forced an unnecessary and dangerous pass in transition that Derick White picked off, and two White free throws the other way cut it to four. Two Siakam free throws gave the Raptors their six-point lead back, 62-56, at halftime.
.@pskills43 CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF ✈️ pic.twitter.com/xSFG16vV60— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 6, 2022
The Raptors opened the third getting good looks, but not hitting them, while the Celtics made more of an effort to get into the paint. They took the lead back at 68-67, with all 12 of the points coming in the paint or at the free throw line. A Tatum three broke that streak, and a Brown dunk gave the Celtics a 73-69 lead with 6:35 to go — and forced Nick Nurse to call timeout.
That didn’t solve anything as the Celtics got hot from downtown, hitting three of their next four attempts. They outscored the Raptors 35-18 in the frame, shot 57% from the field and had 16 points in the paint. The Raptors? They missed 14 of their 22 shots and all four of their three-point attempts.
The Raptors didn’t roll over, of course — they rarely do! And they got the lead all the way down to five, and even had late chances to cut it down even further. But a busted three-on-1, and a bobbled ball out of bounds, and missed Gary Trent layup prevented them from getting any closer.
Trent finished the game with 20 points off the bench, hitting 7 of his 10 shots. Boucher was also a spark off the bench, grabbing nine rebounds and scoring eight points.
Blake Griffin started for the injured Al Horford, and scored 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting.
The Raptors’ homestand continues on Wednesday when they host the Los Angeles Lakers.