The Toronto Raptors will downplay it.
Tuesday night marked their chance to measure back up against the Boston Celtics, the only team ahead of them in the Eastern Conference and a team that holds one of Toronto’s most painful losses above their heads. With Boston getting far more press as a credible threat to head to the NBA Finals and the Raptors growing far more confident in the stylistic changes that were still being felt out back in November, it was an opportunity to send a message as to just how far they’ve come and how far they might be able to go in April, May, and heck, June.
They will tell you that was not the case, that this was just one of 82 and a single step on an important journey. Their play in a thorough, dominant, and nearly buzzer-to-buzzer 111-91 victory over the Celtics would suggest otherwise. The Raptors cared. Or they’re just really good, catching Boston on a bad night in a perfect storm that made the league’s best defense look pedestrian and the league’s most heavily scrutinized offense look sustainable against elite competition. Whatever the case, message received for a night.
“You play as hard and with the intensity we did, it kind of sets the tone and gives you a rhythm offensively,” Dwane Casey said. “We had one tough stretch there but once we got our rhythm, moving the ball, getting it from side to side…They’re one of the best defensive teams in the league. Their length, but our ball movement out-trumped them. We got the ball moving a little bit but, again, it came from our defensive intensity.”
The results were stark: 29 assists, the highest assist rate of the season, 12 players scoring, 17 threes, 20 fastbreak points…the list goes on. All told, it was one of Boston’s worst defensive outings of the season, and they rarely threatened outside of the first quarter.
This started about as close to a playoff atmosphere as my willingness to use cliches for an early February game will allow, and that went beyond just the play on the court. The Air Canada Centre was loud and excited, that energy laced with a palpable anxiousness during the game’s grimier opening stages. Raptors Twitter appeared on the brink of overreaction in either direction, too. True to playoff form, the game was slow to really establish an advantage, neither side going ahead by more than the Raptors’ eight and even that lasting only for a brief moment.
If the game was to be measured by how the Raptors’ looked compared to the last meeting, there were encouraging signs. The pairing of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas defended well early, switching the Aron Baynes and Al Horford assignments and providing paint protection against Kyrie Irving’s baseline drives. The Raptors’ defense as a whole was fairly locked in, holding Boston to 18 points on 21 possessions in the first and really only giving Boston an opening to score via the jump-shot or with Jaylen Brown getting out in transition. The Raptors looked to establish Valanciunas the other way, but the Celtics’ league-best defense was prepared for both him and DeMar DeRozan, and it was Kyle Lowry’s triples in triplicate that floated the offense to a four-point lead after one.
Both teams leaned on their benches, as expected, providing a look at how each coach may use their rotation when closer to (or at) full health. For Boston, that meant more staggering to keep one, and usually two, starters on the floor, while the Raptors trusted their normal rotation that includes an all-bench stretch. The defense from that group was as strong as the team’s come to expect, buoyed by some great Jakob Poeltl minutes and a massive Pascal Siakam block cracking back to help in the paint. Offensively, Delon Wright going full amoeba and Fred VanVleet hitting from outside helped them maintain an edge.
After C.J. Miles and Wright sandwiched an Irving three with threes of their own, Dwane Casey extended the bench’s leash, letting them continue to roll as Boston brought more starters back. They’d push the lead as high 15 with Wright continuing to make incredible things happen and Siakam exploding on the run for an alley-oop off of a steal. It was a terrific stretch against tough Boston units, and it gave the starters a substantial cushion as they filtered back into the game. The energy dropped off on Toronto’s side at that point, and a mini-Celtics run brought that earlier anxiety back to the surface. A would-be DeRozan corner three (foot on the line!) was followed by a pull-up DeRozan three with a VanVleet three and a Celtics foul on a Lowry attempted three – there’s a pattern here, maybe – mixed in promptly put an end to that.
With the Raptors stealing another possession to end a quarter, they were sitting with a comfortable 21-point lead at the break, having held Boston to 80.4 points per-100 possessions without surrendering a single offensive rebound. Before the game, Brad Stevens had raved about how much he enjoyed the Raptors’ second unit. At this point?
“Ha. Probably not a lot,” Wright said.
It’s always a little funny when the gameflow is dictating that the starters just hold the lead the backups largely built, and that’s what the Raptors set out to do in the third. Whether Boston had let up a bit down 20 – unlike them – or Toronto sensed the chance to put things away, the Celtics never really got a counter-run going. Even with DeRozan struggling to create his own shot and Ibaka and Valanciunas having tough quarters (including an apparent left foot injury for the latter, though Casey said he was available to return if needed), the Raptors withstood Boston’s push. Once DeRozan began getting to the rim, the pull-away was on. Lowry stayed ludicrously hot from outside and the hybrid stars-and-bench group frustrated Boston into turnover after turnover. The lead touched 27 and settled in at 23 entering the fourth.
“I think it’s contrasting styles, and I think it’s good for us. We just gotta clean up our third quarters and we’ll be fine,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s good, especially in the first, to come in with that speed off the bench just to change the tempo of the game. Our job is to not have any drop-off when we sub. That’s the problem that a lot of teams face in the NBA is that when they take their main guys out, there’s a drop-off there. When we’re really rolling, there’s no drop-off when we sub. We try to take the lead in the other direction.”
Poeltl did his best to end it there, delivering a ridiculous block on Abdel Nader to start the frame, then scoring on a goaltending call the other way. Things rolled smoothly from there, with Poeltl offering some terrific rim protection, the ball moving around freely, and the Celtics never really threatening. Miles then got a turn to take over for a true pull-away stretch, hitting a pair of threes that nearly brought the ACC down with a nice dish to Siakam and a foul on another three sprinkled in between. It’s a shame that the four end-of-bench Raptors were in Long Island for a Raptors 905 game, because one of them could have gotten run against the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference here.
As it was, the Raptors closed things out with Lucas Noguiera and Norman Powell getting those minutes, cruising to a 20-point victory in a game that never felt up in the air outside of the first quarter. It was about as emphatic a victory as a team can put forth in a battle of top teams in the conference, and while there are always caveats in regular season games – Irving’s health, Morris’ health, the absence of Marcus Smart, and so on – these performances also matter. The takeaway here is likely twofold: One, the Raptors can beat very good teams, and two, they can do it with their new style of play. With the way their defense has delivered this year and the mounting evidence that the system tweaks are helping them beat quality teams when both stars don’t all necessarily have it going.
They’re important games but they’re still two games. I don’t get caught up in…Thursday night is just as important to me,” Casey said. “That’s the main focus we’ve got to keep, businesslike approach and not get caught up in whatever.”
The atmosphere in the locker room echoed that. Whereas there are fun games the Raptors will allow themselves to be light after, it was more subdued here. The Raptors were acting like a team that hadn’t completed their job yet, which is exactly what Casey wants. If nothing else, Tuesday was a good indicator that positive progress is being made toward their bigger-picture aims.
“I don’t know if there external hype, we just went out there and played our game,” Lowry said. “We take it one game at a time, one game in our journey. Long-term we’re looking at it to how we can get better as a group and be sharp in the playoffs.”
Whether you believe them or not about the emotional investment they put into the game, the results said more than the Raptors could, anyway. It’s true that it’s just one game, and it’s a game that showed some nice growth since a disappointing meeting earlier in the year.