Every game between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics feels big. In that sense, a 110-99 loss in Boston on Saturday casts a light but extended shadow over the Raptors as they prepare for the playoffs.
Fair or otherwise, it’s another loss in a tight game to a quality team, and this one came free of the burdens of fatigue. A thinned-out Celtics team leaned on some unseasonably hot shooting to stay close for a half, then out-maneuvered and out-executed the Raptors down the stretch. Largely unassailable for any extended stretch all season, the Raptors have now dropped four of seven. They will tell you they’re not panicking, and reason with the benefit of distance from the situation would suggest they’re in the right. In a short window, though, a few of those with some underlying patterns can be at least a little worrisome, even if a chunk of the loss can be chalked up to the unrepeatable.
It’s hard to describe exactly how the game started without sounding like this is an April Fool’s post. Let me try: Aron Baynes torched the Raptors with long jumpers. I know this to be true because I watched it, then watched it again to make sure. It happened, and it was weird, and both teams seemed mostly fine with the process that got them there. For the Raptors, their pick-and-roll strategy invites teams to take mid-range jumpers, especially if it’s a traditional non-shooter like Baynes, who entered the game shooting 47 percent from 10 feet to the 3-point line on fewer than two attempts per-game. The Celtics, meanwhile, were clearly willing to take whatever shots presented themselves from putting Jonas Valanciunas into pick-and-pop scenarios. The result – three Baynes mid-range jumpers and then career threes number two and three – is something neither side could have expected.
Outside of Baynes’ 12 first-quarter points, things looked a little more normal. DeMar DeRozan was in full playmaker role, dishing five assists in the frame, while multiple Raptors hit from outside, both bigs attacked close-outs aggressively, and OG Anunoby used the general inattention he received to cut the lane or get open outside. As Baynes came down to earth, Terry Rozier got into the Raptors’ defense with his hyper-aggressive approach, and a DeRozan burst and Fred VanVleet three at the buzzer did enough to keep the Raptors ahead 33-31 at the end of the quarter. Considering Baynes scored 12 and the Celtics were perfect from outside, it wasn’t a terrible spot to be in, even if Rozier’s penetration needed to be sorted out in a bad way.
VanVleet kept things on track with a clock-saving three to start the second, too, a necessary bucket as the Raptors’ bench struggled against a very big Celtics unit. Thinned out in the backcourt, Boston was playing Marcus Morris, Al Horford, and Greg Monroe altogether, and it’s that type of big, physical group that stands as the bench’s likeliest matchup issue, at least when they can’t force turnovers and get out to run. C.J. Miles had a particularly tough time, and yet even with Delon Wright missing a transition look off of a VanVleet outlet, the bench only played to a minus-2 over their six minutes.
It had the look of a game the starters would need to win, and even a mass substitution to get a VanVleet-and-starters look kept a pretty pronounced big-versus-small dynamic. Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics rely a lot on driving against switches and crashing (which should sound familiar from recent years), and while the Raptors did well to get initial stops, they struggled to end possessions with rebounds. Norman Powell got his semi-regular end-of-second look to try to slow down Rozier, and that coincided with a 7-0 run and an uptick in Raptors’ aggression getting to the rim or the line on the offensive end. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry struck a nice balance between attacking and creating, combining for 10 assists in the half as the Raptors, but another burst of tough shot-making for the Celtics kept them within two at the break.
The apparent Baynes adjustment was to have Anunoby try to end him with a poster, and Anunoby tried his damndest to open the third up, drawing back rim and a foul instead. That seemed to spark the Raptors, with DeRozan unleashing a tough floater, both bigs banging around both rims and frustrating Horford, and Anunoby book-ending a quality run – and continuing a very nice individual outing – with another great cut to put the Raptors out to a game-high six-point lead. Jayson Tatum had his turn carrying the Boston offense the other way, both as a scorer and a creator, hitting a couple of huge triples to make sure the game stayed within a possession or two, and Morris chipped in with some “creative” footwork on a pair of buckets to help the effort.
That made for a situation where the bench would need to come through more than in the first half. That started out shaky, as Miles and Lowry both missed threes as part of a stars-and-bench group to fall to 1-of-10 combined from outside. DeRozan did his best to keep the Raptors afloat with a pretty terrific performance (curiously, he was guarded by Abdel Nader here rather than Morris or Tatum), and his 28 points through three quarters gave the bench a two-point cushion heading into their star-less fourth-quarter minutes. Miles’ tough night continued, and outside of a VanVleet lob to Pascal Siakam, the offense couldn’t get much going. They played to a minus-6 in just over three minutes, and Dwane Casey had to pull the plug quickly.
The lineup he went with was a new one, with Powell and Ibaka joining the bench. That doesn’t add a ton of size with two point guards still on the floor, and Anunoby may have made some sense at the three there, but they held their own until the star guards returned a few moments later. Casey also tried the extremely rare dual-center look to match size inside around Ibaka’s fifth foul, then quickly pivoted to Siakam-Valanciunas. Neither worked, and Casey didn’t like the look with his starting frontcourt, either, and so he continued to tinker every dead ball.
That resulted in the Raptors steadily falling behind further and further. The Raptors tried to go small since matching bigger wasn’t working, and Boston felt comfortable zoning up that look since Toronto couldn’t hit anything from outside. Even when Lowry hit a big three with their backs against the wall, the Raptors got in their own way with persistent turnover issues and Miles, whose shooting is a theoretical key to a zone-busting small-ball look, still couldn’t find the mark. Casey kept trying to tinker and removed Miles, but the Raptors couldn’t get out of their own way, with Lowry stepping out of bounds on a would-be three and effectively ending the game there (after the referees somehow lost control of a not-that-intense situation in the final seconds).
There’s no way to sugarcoat the loss, really. The Raptors were well-rested, played a thinned-out Celtics team, and while there were some unlikely outcomes – the shooting of Baynes and Miles, namely – those are hurdles they should be able to overcome, even on the road. The fourth quarter was also one of their worst offensive showings of the season. It was probably one of a handful of their worst losses of the year, and it’s never great to have one of those so close to the playoffs, especially on a night where the extra rest and practice time was supposed to have reinvigorated the team.
It’s also not the end of the world. That it’s only the Raptors fourth loss of this margin all year puts how rare these nights are into perspective, and the Celtics have been doing this to a lot of good teams while short-handed, but any concerns that the stretch of shaky play in tight games with quality opponents is a harbinger of Playoff Raptors TM are at least understandable. Two of the bench’s weaknesses – defending against size everywhere and scoring when Miles is cold – were put on display, and the late-game strategy ran counter to what had been working earlier on. What’s more, the Celtics now pull within two games of the top seed in the Eastern Conference, turning next Wednesday’s rematch – on the second night of a back-to-back – into somewhat of a must-win, since a loss would also give the Celtics the tiebreaker. One-seed aside, it was just a poor response in execution to a gutty Celtics performance.
Those happen. It would probably ease some nerves if they didn’t over the next two or three games.