When You Lose, Don’t Lose The Lesson

Reality check or wake-up call?

Celtics 88, Raptors 83Quick Reaction

Wow, how little do I want to write about this one.

Let’s start with the necessary (homer) caveat – these games happen. The Miami Heat lost by 17 points to the Washington Wizards on the same night and the San Antonio Spurs narrowly hung on against the Utah Jazz. It’s infuriating when they do, but good teams have bad nights.

The Raptors are coming off one of the best 18-game stretches in franchise history, even without controlling for the fact that the schedule has been difficult in that span (note: based solely on opponent winning percentage [read: not home-road, travel, point differential, etc], the Raptors have it easiest of any team the rest of the season). They outscored opponents by 127 points, going 13-5. That’s really good. Somehow, the 2007-08 Raptors had an 18-game stretch where they outscored opponents by 206 points (they went 41-41 but outscored opponents by nearly three points a game that year, a comically “unlucky” year based on expected win-loss record), but this has been a terrific stretch.

Whether or not the Celtics loss kills that momentum is unclear, but it can only really go two ways.

One path is that it can serve as a confidence destroyer. They did lose to a team on a nine-game losing streak with a thinned-out roster due to a trade, and they played some of the worst offensive basketball you can imagine. Looking in the mirror after this one and doubting the past month as a mirage wouldn’t be unreasonable.

Hopefully, it goes the other way, though. On that path, the loss serves as a reminder that, while the Raptors have been much, much better, they’re still the Raptors, a .500 team in the Eastern Conference, and there’s no such thing as a gimmie. Saying the team lacked an edge in the second and third quarter would be an understatement, and maybe this is a harsh reminder that even an excellent defensive fourth can’t make up for 36 minutes of hot garbage.

So it can serve as a reality check or a wake-up call, and we’ll find out by Friday when the Minnesota Timberwolves visit which it is. (Minnesota, by the way, is going to be very hungry, looking to right their own ship.)

As far as Wednesday goes, let’s start with a positive: with the game on the line, the team locked down in the fourth in a major way. While they struggled to score early, they started the frame on a 13-2 run that lasted 6:39. Nearly seven minutes with just two points is a great stretch of ball, and only late trips to the line in catch-up mode kept Boston from an embarrassing total for the quarter.

Boston shot 3-of-20 and the Raptors forced four turnovers. Have a look at the shots they gave up:
celtics chart1
That’s a lot of midrange work and shots near but outside the paint. Those five threes, shots you generally don’t want to allow (though five threes a quarter is roughly league average), they came with an average of seven seconds on the clock and only two would be considered good looks.

But here’s the problem – the Celtics grabbed seven of their 17 misses (one was a team rebound). While those boards “only” led to four second chance points, they’re also lost opportunities for the Raptors to get out in transition against an unset defense, so despite getting 17 stops the Raptors had just two fast break points. It puts undue stress on the defense, too, and is almost certainly a mental drain for the unit that’s out there to work hard, get the stop and then lose the possession.

That wasn’t just an issue that was exclusive to the fourth, either.

In the first three quarters, the Raptors generally defended well and held Boston to 40.6 percent from the floor. Yes, Boston is a pretty inept offensive team, but that’s a good mark against anyone, and it excludes the crazy fourth. But even in the first three quarters, the Celtics grabbed nearly 40 percent of their own misses, good for 21 second chance points. Not even the Indiana Pacers’ defense can get away with giving up that many extended possessions. The fact that Boston finished with just 88 points is a borderline miracle.

Jared Sullinger also had his way all day. I’ve always liked Sullinger as a scoring tweener-big, because he’s intelligent and uses his body well, limiting the downside to his lack of athleticism. He’s a nice piece…but 25 and 20? I know Amir Johnson has been banged up and Jonas Valanciunas has the flu and Tyler Hansbrough was unavailable, but the team’s inability to stop Sullinger in any way was ridiculous. Like I said, I like Sullinger, but his game is pretty straight-forward and while he hit a few degree-of-difficulty shots, this isn’t Kevin Love or Blake Griffin.

One more quick note on the defense – even though Steve Novak is generally a terrible defender, the team did make their big fourth quarter run with him on the floor. They tried hiding him on a few different guys, but it basically came down to good team defense outweighing a poor individual defender. That he managed just one rebound, however, highlights the fact that he’s actually more than 50 percent worse than Andrea Bargnani in terms of career rebound rate. Yikes.

The offensive end was where the real crime was committed, a 48-minute gouging of our eyeballs. In the first half alone I counted four missed bunnies, two airballed layups and seven missed free throws. I didn’t count in the second half, for my own sanity.

You want to know how to make up five points in this one? Hit your free throws. 12-of-25. 12-of-25. That’s 48 percent. Five more would be 68 percent, a mark still low enough to complain about.

At the same time, the only thing that kept this one close was the three ball, as the Raptors went 11-of-24. Thank Shamgod for John Salmons, right? Ugh.

Want to make your eyes bleed?

toronto chart1

Had enough? Have a look at just the shots when the game was within five points:

toronto chart2

What the hell was happening on the right side of the floor? Short of the Celtics having acquired Tyson Chandler, Segre Ibaka and Marc Gasol mid-game and I just didn’t notice, I can’t explain it.

For individual player breakdowns, there’s always the quick react, but this was a pretty team-wide drop of the ball. Hopefully, the lesson learned here is that they can’t take anyone lightly or ever let their foot off the gas. (And also that it’s a really terrible feeling to work your tail off for 24 seconds for nothing because you stopped playing a bit too early and gave up the board.)

The Raptors are still in a good place and they could still have momentum with them. How they respond to a loss like this – playing poorly, storming back but ultimately realizing you can’t win that way – will say a lot about the psyche of the team and how much they buy into the 13-5 stretch.

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