Frustrating: A horrendous ending. Every fucking play down the stretch was some variation of getting the ball to DeMar DeRozan to isolate. Any screens were strictly to generate a mismatch so DeRozan could eventually jack up a long two. Boston’s defense is incredible but you make it so easy when you just do one thing.
As Toronto continues to modernize its offence, it’s clear that when the moment is greatest the Raptors, like most teams, will lean on their star players to do what they do best. Over the past few seasons, that meant that either DeRozan or Kyle Lowry would have the ball with the game on the line. But Lowry has been playing below standard this season — he seems to manufacture most of his offence these days via deep, dramatic three-pointers, although his five trips to the free-throw line on Sunday were encouraging — and so those late-game offensive duties have rested on DeRozan. And, by the way, they should.
On Sunday it didn’t work to the Raptors’ favour. During a strange and often frantic final minute, the Raptors turned to DeRozan twice to help take the lead. With his team down one point, DeRozan received the ball on the right side and missed a one-on-one pull-up jumper over the outstretched hand of Horford.
The Raptors were gifted an opportunity when Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum was called for an offensive foul when he elbowed Fred VanVleet clean in the face after grabbing the rebound, giving Toronto possession with 13 seconds remaining.
Again the ball came to DeRozan, who came curling off a screen on the right side once more. Covered by second-year guard Jaylen Brown this time, he took the younger player just outside the free-throw line, momentarily lost his defender and spun for a turnaround jumper he’s hit a thousand times before. Not this time.
There’s sure to be debate around the water cooler (is that still a thing?) on Monday morning regarding how the Raptors and head coach Dwane Casey could or should approach those late-game situations. Did the Raps abandon their new offensive principles and revert to old habits of one-on-one, low-efficiency basketball? Or did they give themselves the best chance to win by letting their best player, who led his team in scoring with 24 points and hit several clutch shots as the game was winding down, do his thing?
But as is often the case, the final shot is just what everyone remembers, and other issues have to be taken into account. The Raptors were jittery with the ball in the first half, committed 17 turnovers in the game allowing the Celtics to get 18 more field-goal attempts, and Boston turned 15 offensive rebounds into 21 second-chance points.
There were many other instances at play than just two late missed shots.
“We have some good possessions and we have some slippages,” Raptor Kyle Lowry said. “We have an opportunity to still get better and grow. That’s what you take from it. You look at it and say, ‘What did we do good and what did we do bad?’ and move on from there.”
Playing without injured Kyrie Irving, the Celtics rattled off their 12th straight win thanks to 21 points from Horford, 18 from Brown and 16 off the bench from Terry Rozier.
They only shot 40 per cent from the field, missed 16 of 26 three-pointers and committed 15 turnovers of their own, but were good enough defensively to win.
Raptor Norman Powell gets a hand on the ball while Al Horford of the Celtics, back after missing two games with a concussion, looks for room to work in Sunday’s game in Boston. Powell left the game with an injury.
“They are the best team in the NBA right now, won 12 in a row and they are playing unbelievable,” said Lowry, who finished with 19 points. “Everyone is picking up the slack. They lose Kyrie, or he doesn’t play, and Rozier, (Marcus) Smart, those guys step in. (Jayson) Tatum stepped up. They all played aggressive. They beat us with 15 offensive rebounds and 21 second-chance points. It’s kind of tough to come back on that.”
The Raptors lost Norm Powell after just seven minutes to what team officials said was a hip pointer. He left the arena on crutches and will be examined more fully during Monday’s off-day in Houston.
“Man, great look,” he said. “I make that in my sleep. Felt good, I thought it was going to roll in, but you know, it didn’t.”
The easy leap to make here is that once again with the game on the line, the Raptors went the predictable route eschewing all that talk about philosophical changes to the offence.
The point is though, this is not going to change. The Raptors are going to “ride or die” as the kids say these days with their best shooters down the stretch. That was always going to be the case and it will be the case until someone comes along who is a better scoring option than DeRozan or Lowry depending on who is holding the hot hand at the moment.
Right now that hot hand belongs to DeRozan.
The share-the-ball edict is still very much in effect. Just don’t expect that egalitarian approach in crunch time.
“I thought it was a great look,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “He shook him, he was wide open, he vaulted up. I’ll take that look 999 times out of a thousand. He came up short. He got to where he wanted to go. We got him open. The play was well executed by everybody. A guy just missed a shot. I’ll take that shot all day. The best player taking the shot he wants at that time.”
Getting ejected for arguing a call in the Washington loss, then ducking reporters and leaving his teammates to answer for him, was the lowest point of Lowry’s substandard season. That was a lapse in leadership and his stunt was made even more frustrating by his struggles.
Lowry never commented on the ejection, but he did offer an explanation as to why he was struggling on offense. He pointed out that the new scheme hasn’t allowed him to hold the ball and make decisions off the dribble, which is generally what Lowry is best at. Instead, he’s just trying to get everyone else into their spots, then trying to slot in where he fits best.
“Last couple of years, coach would give me the game for the first five, six, seven minutes of the game. I could feel out the game and get passes off and get everyone involved, and now it’s like everyone has to be involved from the jump,” Lowry said.
“I think the way we’re moving the ball, the ball’s not in my hands as much,” he added.
The tracking data backs up everything Lowry is saying. He’s getting roughly the same amount of frontcourt touches (28.5) as Ibaka (24.4) and Powell (21.0) while playing far more minutes. It’s a sharp change from previous seasons where Lowry averaged roughly 70 frontcourt touches per game, which ranked 12th in the league.
Now he’s 93rd! He’s behind Austin Rivers!
Lowry will eventually adjust to his reduced role, and he’s already showing progress in that regard, but it doesn’t make sense to make him the sixth-highest paid player in the league then take the ball out of his hands. With or without the system change, Lowry needs more touches.
However, in general, the Raptors’ ball movement could use improvement. The Celtics dominated in the first half of this quarter, scoring 21 to the Raptors’ 12, grabbing offensive rebounds and creating good looks. But, DeRozan responded with multiple fouls drawn in isolation. As well, CJ Miles continued to inject much-needed energy and three-point shooting into the game, making two subsequent shots from downtown, and contributing to an 8-0 run for the Raptors. Lucas Nogueira blocked four shots this game, further solidifying his case for extended playing time in place of Valanciunas. Suddenly, the game was tied at 73. Dwane Casey finished the quarter with an all bench lineup. Siakam somehow hit a pull-up three, followed by a quick three-point response from Rozier. The Celtics led 77-76 after the buzzer sounded, and the fourth quarter looked to be a thriller. I’m not exactly sure why Delon Wright won’t shoot at the end of the quarter, but it happened twice this game.
The Raptors started the quarter with stellar energy, but messy offense. For example, Nogueira stole the ball, then ran the entire floor and bricked an awkward runner at the rim. Dwane Casey took out CJ Miles and replaced him with Fred VanVleet. While Fred had a couple steals in this quarter, his presence on the floor in the clutch was regrettable. He’s not long enough to bother Celtic players on drives, and does not provide much versatility on offense. DeRozan, throughout the entire quarter, had taken a quadrillion isolation jumpers, scoring on few of them, and caused many turnovers. The offense completely halted, and it was incredibly infuriating – if you happened to miss this game, I envy you, and if you recorded it, I implore you to delete it off your DVR. While the offense in this game was far from spectacular, at the very least, it wasn’t the same player doing the same thing over and over. For the last 5 minutes of the game, Dwane Casey might as well have taken out the rest of the players, and watched DeRozan go at the Celtics, 5-on-1. I wish I was exaggerating.
Of course, the game ended with a missed DeRozan isolation jumper at the buzzer, and a failed offensive rebound attempt by Serge Ibaka. The Raptors could have used Jakob Poeltl’s energy on the offensive boards late in the game, and yet, he was nowhere to be found. The Raptors could have used CJ Miles’ three-point shooting, and yet, he was seated next to Poeltl on the pine.
Overall, Dwane Casey will receive deserved flak for letting this one slip through his fingertips. The Raptors needed offensive and defensive versatility; but, as expected, the lineup did not adjust as necessary.
“That’s what we wanted from Al,” said guard Marcus Smart. “He makes his matchups very tough. They don’t know whether to put a regular 5 on him or a smaller guard. We try to exploit that. He’s a very good offensive player, so we want Al to look more for his (shots); especially in the post, he has to look for it, and he’s been doing that.”
Such shot selection and efficiency wasn’t initially apparent during Horford’s first few months with the Celtics last season, but his teammates have noticed an increased level of aggression from him dating back to the squad’s 2017 postseason run.
“It definitely looks like a young Al Horford,” 20-year-old wing Jaylen Brown said in agreement with Rozier. “An All-Star Al Horford, to be honest. If he keeps it up, we’re going to be tough.”
What made Horford’s tenacious approach against the Raptors even more impressive was the fact that he was just returning from a concussion. He had missed the previous two games after being knocked in the head by Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore Monday night. But he showed no signs of timidity upon his return, as he attacked the hoop immediately and often against the Raptors.
“I’m not surprised,” coach Brad Stevens said of Horford’s energy out of the gate. “Obviously he missed a couple of days there, and wanted to make sure he was in really good shape before he came back. But he’s done so much for us for so long; nothing that he does on the court surprises me.”
The timing of Horford’s return was particularly important since leading scorer Kyrie Irving was sidelined with a facial fracture. Fortunately, Boston’s star point guard isn’t expected to miss many games, but in the meantime the team needs find a way to make up for his offensive absence.
Horford helped fill the scoring void as well as he could have Sunday afternoon.
“It felt good,” Horford said of his first game back. “I was just happy to be out there with my teammates. It was hard for me to sit on the side and have to watch.”
“To be honest,” Brown said, “that’s a shot DeMar DeRozan probably hits nine times out of 10.”
Echoed DeRozan: “I make that in my sleep.”
According to Basketball-Reference.com, DeRozan has hit 42.7 percent of 2-point jumpers from 10-16 feet for his career (the NBA called it a 10-footer). The last two seasons he has been close to 50 percent from that range. Considering the level of difficulty for a lot of his attempts, that’s great accuracy, but not quite automatic.
Which is why the Celtics desperately wanted Brown to avoid fouling.
“You don’t want to send these guys to the line,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “When you’re talking about DeRozan, who’s one of the best in the league at it, I thought the eight free throws is a little bit more than you want, but that’s about what he averages per game, or per 48 (minutes). But he gets you to bite because he’s such a good midrange player. And our guys did a pretty good job of contesting there late and being the second jumper.”
DeRozan can still make contested shots like that one, as a number of others exaggerated to point out.
“He’s going to make it eight out of 10 times,” said Raptors teammate Kyle Lowry.
“I thought it was a great look,” added Toronto head coach Dwane Casey. “He shook him, he was wide open, vaulted up, and I’ll take that shot 999 times out of 1,000.”
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 12, 2017
At the start of this season both of these franchises were viewed as “fake contenders” who could make it to the Conference Finals, and maybe even sneak all the way the the NBA Finals, but had no real chance to dethrone Golden State.
If Toronto can’t come into Boston and win a game like this against the severely depleted Celtics you have to ask if they’re even on that level. The Raptors dropped to one game over .500 with an acceptable but unspectacular point differential. It’s early in the season, but right now they look like the same team we’ve seen for the past few seasons, only less dynamic. They look closer to a bottom-4 seed than a threat for a deep run?
Meanwhile, a twelve game winning streak and the best defense in the league, by a wide margin, is an eye opener even 17% of the way into the season. It’s hard to predict where this team will go, but if their young players show second half development instead of smacking into the rookie wall, there’s still a huge amount of room for growth. The Cavaliers have a pile of questions. Boston doesn’t have the talent to match the Warriors, but they do have the types of players (and the coach) to disrupt their game and in a seven game series, you never really know.
More importantly, before the season it looked like there was a gap between the Celtics and the primary contenders behind the Warriors. That meant that even if Golden State suffered a serious injury crisis it was more likely that another team would benefit instead of Boston. At the moment, it looks like the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with the other teams poised to grab that opportunity if it comes. As Toronto slides out of the ranks of the pseudo contenders, Boston is quickly outgrowing that group.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 12, 2017
“We’re not going to make up for Kyrie Irving by somebody trying to be Kyrie Irving,” Stevens said. “We just have to all chip in and account for him as a team.”
But at least this time the lineup received a jolt in return.
Al Horford came out of concussion protocol with an especially clear head and his eyes on the basket, leading the C’s to their 12th straight victory, 95-94, against the Toronto Raptors.
The Celtics center, who missed the last two games after absorbing a Kent Bazemore shot to the face in Atlanta on Nov. 6, sprung for 21 points in 33 minutes on 8-for-9 shooting, including a lead-preserving dunk with 2:09 left.
Horford and Jaylen Brown also turned in the night’s biggest stops, each player with tight coverage on a pair of DeMar DeRozan misses in the last minute.
The Celtics last won 12 straight games during the 2008-09 season, when, prior to a Kevin Garnett knee injury, they were the dominant team in the NBA.
Though no one is confusing this team with the defending 2007-08 NBA champions, many continue to wonder just how, exactly, this league-leading streak is growing.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 12, 2017
“The good news is thus far that’s the only point of pain in his face or head or neck or anything else,” said coach Brad Stevens. “He hasn’t been diagnosed with a concussion. We’ll see how the doctor visit goes today and how everything else goes, but we’ll keep monitoring him for symptoms of that. But we’re hopeful to have him back sooner rather than later.”
Rozier comes through: Rozier, who tied his career high with 16 points, had a four-point play with 2.8 seconds left in the half and connected on another 3-pointer with 3.7 seconds left in the third quarter.
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) November 12, 2017
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