Final Score: Raptors 94, Celtics 95
Whenever the Raptors meet the Celtics, someone critical on either side seems to be injured. Last season, that certainly seemed to be the case. From Kyle and DeMar for the Raptors to Isaiah Thomas for the Celtics, regular season matchups between these two teams have always had an injury-related asterisk of some sort. And yesterday afternoon was no different – Kyrie Irving was out for Boston. Coming off a facial fracture suffered as a result of an Aron Baynes elbow to the face, Irving took the game off but is expected to return in short order for the Celtics, likely next game.
Without their prized off-season acquisition in the lineup, the Celtics were coming into the game hoping that the return of Al Horford (who had missed some time going through concussion protocol) and their home crowd could somehow propel them to a victory against a Raptors team that had won 2 in a row and was the favourite. But on this day, on the famed parquet floor at the TD Garden, the Celtics would prevail by the slimmest of margins.
The Raptors came out guns blazing on offense in the first quarter, courtesy of Kyle Lowry whose rapidly firing 3-point stroke was part of a solid early start for Toronto. Lowry went on to score 11 of the Raptors first 16 points. But things cooled off for the Raptors heading to the end of the first quarter, as they continued to cough up the ball (10 times in the first quarter alone) leading to 12 points for the C’s. To further complicate matters, we saw an injury to Norman Powell who took a knee from Aron Baynes and ended up suffering a hip pointer. For those of you don’t exactly know what that is, it’s pretty painful. We’ll have to see how Norm is feeling, whether he’ll miss time, and if so, what it would mean for CJ Miles and the other bench wings in terms of playing time.
Throughout the game, the Celtics boasted a balanced offensive attack with Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier making timely buckets against a soft Toronto defense that seemed to let its guard down at critical points in the game. The Raptors got a much-needed boost from their bench however, namely from guys like Pascal Siakam who contributed pleasantly surprising offense once again and Bebe, whose defensive presence seemed to make a clear impact on the game at certain points. Things were looking okay closer to halftime, as the Raptors built up an 8 point lead.
But as we feared, the Raptors didn’t close the half effectively. They coughed up a key offensive rebound to the Celtics giving them the last shot of the half, which led to JV making his biggest mistake of the game biting on a Terry Rozier fake-and-side-step three pointer. That momentum-changing play ended up in 4 points for the Celtics that shaved the Raptor lead to a manage-able 5 points going into halftime. This was going to be one of those games.
It was a sluggish defensive start to the second half for the Raptors, as they allowed the Celtics to consistently stay within 3-4 points of them in the opening stages of the half. The Celtics went on a key run in that stretch including back-to-back 3’s from Horford and Brown that put them ahead 71-63. After what we saw from the Celtics against the Hornets on Friday night (where they outscored Charlotte by 19 in the second half), it’s clear that the Celtics get stronger as the game goes on with their home crowd behind them – and this critical juncture was the moment of truth for Toronto.
Thankfully, the Raptors responded. After two huge 3’s from CJ Miles, and 2 DeMar free throws, we had another tie game on our hands, and for Raptor fans, there was a renewed sense of confidence. But…once again, they failed to close the quarter effectively. After it looked like Pascal Siakam closed the third quarter with a nice step-back 3 that he’s added to his game, the Celtics once again responded with a quick Terry Rozier 3 pointer to close the quarter. These are the Celtics for crying out loud…did we not expect an annoying game?
Some key coaching decisions by Casey were implemented down the stretch, including the decision to stick with Fred VanVleet who stayed on the floor with the starters (minus JV) to close the game. FVV had his good moments, but also some critical mistakes (overall, he was somewhat average at +2 for the game). It was an interesting decision by Casey going with VanVleet because, at least to me, it wasn’t anything super obvious that this guy was doing that kept him in the game. With his 2 assists, came 2 turnovers as well. And I’ve never been a fan of the backcourt pairing of FVV with Kyle Lowry, as the Raptors lose a ton of size as well.
With Norman Powell ruled out for the game, Casey opted to go with a mix of CJ Miles and OG Anunoby on the wings with DeRozan as part of an offense/defense switch down the stretch. While Miles had a decent shooting game overall (4/8 overall and 2/5 from beyond the arc), he missed a key go-ahead bucket at the 6-minute mark in the 4th quarter. And it was one of those ones that just had to go down if the Raptors were going to win this one.
With the way we were closing quarters and the energy the Celtics had with their crowd, no matter how hard we battled, there was always an unsettling feeling with this game. The margin of error just seemed really slim. Ultimately for Toronto, the pressure was just too much as their inability to combine good offense and good defense for multiple possessions down the stretch wound up costing them the game.
The Raptors shot better in the game (46% from the field to Boston’s 40%) and got to the free throw line more (20/23 vs. 15/19 for Boston), but were let down on the glass getting out-rebounded by the Celtics 46-36 (the Celtics had 15 offensive rebounds leading to 21 points). The Celtics also had more zip in their offensive schemes, out-assisting the Raptors 24-18.
Held under 100 points, the Raptors offense had key moments where it stalled. And down the stretch, we saw a fair bit of iso-ball come into play again for Toronto with play after play run for DeMar DeRozan. Sure, he’s your best scorer, and I honestly didn’t even have a problem with them going to him on the final possession. DeMar hits those jumpers in his sleep, and it was even a great opportunity for Ibaka who fumbled the offensive rebound on the missed shot. But in several possessions before that, we saw the Raptors with almost no creativity on offense running isolations for DeMar DeRozan on most sets to the close the game. We’ve seen that before and it’s just not a sustainable winning formula.
Regardless of what the numbers say, or what kind of plays were run….the Raptors should’ve had this one – period. Sure, it was on the road, but you had 2 days of rest, and were at full strength facing a team without its primary All-star. This was simply a game you had to have.
Things don’t get any easier for Toronto, as they continue their 3-game road trip with next stops in Houston, followed by New Orleans. The Rockets boast the best record in the Western Conference at 11-3, with a 4-2 record at home. Their offence, at 109.4 points per 100 possessions, is second in the league only to the Warriors. Spearheaded by early season MVP-front-runner James Harden, who’s averaging 30.5 points per game to go along with 9.8 assists and 4.8 boards, the Rockets are just sublime on the offensive end of the court. A familiar face in PJ Tucker awaits, who will face Toronto for the first time since signing with Houston this off-season.
The Raptors will then complete the second half of their first back-to-back of the year at New Orleans against the Pelicans on Wednesday. I’m guessing after the close win the Raptors had over the Pelicans at the ACC last week, the Boogie and the Brow will be looking for revenge.