No statement has ever brought someone more pain to write, but the Boston Celtics are really good. Please excuse me while I ralph.
Coming into Monday night’s game against the Raptors, Boston had won 24 of its last 28 games, and sat tied atop the Eastern Conference just a couple months removed from being the angstiest bunch of dudes on the verge of being broken up since insert your favourite defunct band here.
Now, the Celtics didn’t arrive in Toronto with their full complement of troublingly good players. Both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were held back in Boston to nurse nagging ailments, as was Al Horford. Combine that with the news of Robert Williams III’s torn meniscus, and it was something of a skeleton crew across from the Raptors, who themsleves were sporting their ideal starting five for the first time since Valentine’s Day with the return of Gary Trent Jr.
The thing about the Celtics, even when depleted, is that they’re super well-coached, and endlessly frustrating ti play. As a result, this was no picnic, with the Raptors barely eeking out a 115-112 win in overtime.
They won this game because of Pascal Siakam. If ever you needed proof that he’s an All-NBA level player, just run back the tape of the final 10 minutes of this game. The first 24 will do the trick, too — he scored 25 in the firt half — but it was in closing time that he put the finishes touches on a masterful 40-point, 13-rebound, three-steal, two-block night during the most pivotal moments of the game.
The Celtics aren’t quite the defensive bear they’ve been all year without four of their six best players, but Ime Udoka can freaking coach, and their nasty quotient didn’t drop off much on Monday. With Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. visibly less than 100 percent, OG Anunoby mostly on corner triple duty, and Scottie Barnes fighting through a rookie-looking off night, Siakam’s headlong drives into and slick spins around the likes of Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams, Luke Kornet, Derrick White or whichever other poor souls were in his way represented the best Toronto’s offense could muster. He battled his way to the line for eight attempts — including two must-hits to even the gamea at 106 and send it to overtime — and connected on 17 of 25 twos; the 0-4 mark he posted from downtown is the only real knock against his stat line, and if you’re gonna cherry pick that you’re a cop.
Simply put, Siakam was the best player on the floor on Monday, which tends to win you games, even when you’re not at your best, which the Raptors certainly were not.
Marcus Smart was a big reason why. Every part of my soul wants to hate the guy; when he’s playing the team I like I most certainly do. But as a long-standing Kyle Lowry acolyte who loves himself a heel, it’s hard not to respect Smart’s combination of defense, offensive juice and grift, however begruding it might be. Tasked with running the show sans Tatum, Smart try-harded his way to 25 points, 10 boards and four assists, while making VanVleet’s life on the ball a living hell. Mercifully, Smart’s seven turnovers and 2-of-11 mark from outside did the Celtics in. As good as he’s become, he ain’t Pascal Siakam.
Siakam wasn’t alone in the victory, even with some substandard efforts from guys you’d typically expect more from. For the first time in a while, the best Raptors reserve wasn’t one of Chris Boucher or Precious Achiuwa, who combined to go just 5-of-19 from the floor. It was instead Thad Young who shone for Toronto in 28 minutes off the bench, so brightly in fact that he closed this one through the end of regulation and overtime.
Thad’s fit with the Raptors has been a little unclear to this point. His mix of size, playmaking and defensive wits are obviously very Raptorsy traits, but the exact place to slide him in has mostly been unclear since the deadline. It’s a little clearer now, following his essential 12-8-3-1-3 night on 5-of-9 shooting, 2-of-5 from downtown. With Achiuwa, Boucher and Barnes struggling, and Khem Birch out of the lineup, Young assumed his calling as a small-ball center alongside Toronto’s best players in a couple different stretches of the win. Young’s kind of like a suped up version of last year’s Deandre’ Bembry — overextended when asked to be more than a fourth or fifth option, but perfectly at home connecting superior players by doing all the right things on the margins. On nights when Barnes shows his rookieness, Young is a perfect option to spell him. Without his rebounding defense — the latter of which was the stuff that’ll make Nick Nurse swoon — Toronto doesn’t win this game. Tonight, a potential closing playoff lineup of Young, VanVleet, Siakam, Trent and Anunoby was born.
Anunoby’s contributions shouldn’t be slept on, either. He was responsible for poking loose a pair of crucial Celtics turnovers late in the game, and offered some serious rim resistance to assist Siakam, who was playing on five fouls for a while before finally getting the boot from the game with just over a minute to play in OT. The triple he hit to kickstart a 7-0 run in extra time was pretty helpful, too
He doesn't shoot to miss @OAnunoby pic.twitter.com/SHB96E9n8s— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 29, 2022
All told, this was an ugly game. Officiating will surely be a point of focus in the aftermath — Nurse looked like he was fighting off an aneurysm trying to dance around ref talk in his post-game presser. And hey, while ref grievances can be a little overblown (the broadcast was a over the top with theirs on Monday), they were pretty understandable in this game. Toronto lived at the rim all night, and both teams played unbelievbly physical defense, yet the foul disparity at the end of the game was 28-15 against the Raptors.
It was mayhem, but it was the kind of mayhem that good teams tend to rise up through. At 43-32 and now tied with the Bulls for fifth, that’s very much what these Raptors are proving to be. And with a guy like Pascal Siakam playing like this, good might be underselling it.