Wins all look the same on the standings page.
In general, this is a bad way to approach a long regular season. Process matters, and the How of wins is often as important as the How Many, at least once a team establishes itself at a certain level. Winning poorly is less sustainable than winning well. In single examples, though, the they-all-count mentality can work just fine. Like, for example, when a good team has dropped five of their last eight and are seeing their lead a top a conference slip, with time running out to tighten things up.
That’s where the Toronto Raptors found themselves on Wednesday, hosting the Boston Celtics in a state of hunger not just for a turnaround in approach and execution but also for a win to help secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference, a perch they’d worked all year for. So close to the postseason, how they’re playing outside of just results is important. For this one game, it felt like they needed a win regardless. A 96-78 victory did the trick, even if it was on the uglier side, showing notable improvement on the defensive end and steadying nerves with a week to go.
“You’re not excited,” Dwane Casey said. “You know you’ve got some other games to go, we’ve got some other things to get better at, looking at a big picture. This is one game, we still have some things to get better at…A few hiccups but I thought it was a big improvement over last night. It’s about competition, about competing at a high level with a big picture in mind. You’re not just trying to win that one game, we’re trying to do something special.”
The Raptors came out with a much better energy than in recent games, with both stars appearing dialed in on the defensive end and the bigs stepping up to protect the paint. Even when Boston tried to exploit Toronto’s switch-heavy approach, the results were minimal – Al Horford did manage to draw two quick fouls on OG Anunoby, necessitating a Norman Powell appearance, but Boston started cold from the floor and had a pair of shots turned away. The results weren’t as sound at the other end, with Jonas Valanciunas starting out 1-of-4 and the only basket between Lowry and DeMar DeRozan coming on a contested DeRozan corner three. That’s the type of grimy battle these teams are expected to engage in, and a timeout brought an offensive boost as Valanciunas continued trying to bully through Aron Baynes’ chest and Lowry found the mark from outside.
Boston didn’t take long to shift to a gigantic hybrid unit, the type that gave Toronto trouble on Saturday and did so again here. The Raptors are still too eager to switch against size, and Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe were prompt beneficiaries. Boston also continued their mistreatment of Toronto’s bench bigs at the other end, and spacing was hard to come by as a result. Not even a Fred VanVleet transition lob to Powell could connect, and the Raptors failed to score over the final three-plus minutes of the quarter. Even with Boston shooting at a mediocre level and coughing up five turnovers, Toronto was down six after a quarter, shooting only a little better on twos (4-of-12) than threes (2-of-11).
The regular all-bench unit got it’s turn from there, and they returned the disrespect on defense by abandoning Kadeem Allen. Even with Boston’s size advantage, it worked out, as the Celtics got nothing for the first few minutes of the quarter while Jakob Poeltl and VanVleet got to the line to draw closer. Greg Monroe eventually took advantage of his edge inside for an offensive rebound, and a tired-looking Poeltl got the hook for Lucas Nogueira, who immediately finished a fast-break because Delon Wright found him so far under the basket not even he could think of passing it.
“It changed the game,” Casey said of a unique new lineup. “Again, you’re looking for five guys who are going to compete and we did. It was a team effort, those guys came in and kind of changed things but everyone had their contributions tonight at some point.”
Casey got even more aggressive trying new wrinkles from there, going four-out around Nogueira with three point guards and C.J. Miles. Wright helped force a pair of turnovers, Nogueira was instrumental at both ends, and the Raptors sped up their early-quarter run, pulling ahead by six. It’s almost like having Lowry-and-bench units as a fail-safe is a wonderful luxury they haven’t used much to preserve Lowry’s minutes but is consistently there when they need it. Boston countered with their starters and still couldn’t get much going on offense around Toronto’s aggressive approach, while the Raptors kept things rolling at the other end as more starters filtered in. Wright was so, so good in this quarter, and it was the best the Raptors have looked defensively in weeks (yes, Jayson Tatum playing point guard for a thinned-out opponent is a fair caveat). Even with some late-half slippage, the Raptors were up 10 at the break, having scored 22 points off of 14 turnovers and having held Boston to a 70.4 offensive rating.
Ibaka came out strong in the third quarter, helping continue to stymie Boston’s ice-cold offense. The Raptors weren’t exactly scoring at will, either, with DeRozan looking to attack switches and being met with excellent defense from Terry Rozier or a denial of the switch altogether. An Anunoby put-back capped a torrid five-plus-minute stretch where the teams combined for 12 points, and things did not pick up when Powell and Poeltl returned (a minor surprise as the first pair off the bench early in the quarter). The Raptors eventually started to score – not much, just enough – and Boston’s continued inability to string offensive possessions together saw them slowly fall further behind. Another nice spark from Wright late in the quarter helped push the lead as high as 20, and they’d take a 14-point edge into the fourth.
“We’re not really concerned about our offense,” VanVleet said. “I feel we can score with the best of them. We’re going to get open looks the way we are playing this year, being unselfish moving the ball. But it was good for us to get back to our defensive principles, tighten up a little bit, kinda tighten the screws and impose our will on the game. I thought we did a good job of that tonight.”
Look, it wasn’t pretty. Boston scored just 33 points over two quarters combined, and while a 14-point deficit in an ugly game seems like a Celtics Special of late, the Raptors were effectively defending most everything now that there was something to defend for (or now that they had been effectively warned by losses, depending on your perspective). Even when Poeltl got his customary whistle at one end, he was able to get it back at the other, VanVleet and Horford traded threes, and when a Raptors starter finally returned, the bench had once again mostly held their own, losing only two points off of the lead.
Ibaka came first and continued his strong second half, Lowry followed a part of another three-guard look and promptly scored a heady transition bucket, and the ball movement picked up, with VanVleet finding Ibaka for a huge dunk and Ibaka teasing another only to dump it off to Nogueira. Another feed to Nogueira put Toronto back up 16 with under four minutes to go, the Raptors effectively putting Boston’s attempt at a zone on ice (it should not be surprising that a second look at it within five days really helped). Casey rode the same group down to the wire, and it’s fitting that Ibaka nailed a late three and had a late put-back to make his statline even somewhat indicate how well he played. That Wright’s final attempt rimmed out was unfair in the same regard, though is eight-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist, plus-18 line tells the story just fine.
It was a quality – and much-needed – win. The Raptors leaned heavily on their depth and ability to try different looks, and while that probably won’t be quite as valuable in the postseason when things tighten up, it’s encouraging that they made progress from Saturday’s meeting. It speaks to their ability to make adjustments between games, with the team handling Boston’s big hybrid bench group and their zone better with the benefit of time and tape. They also scored reasonably well against a team that’s been defending well despite rolling shorthanded, even on a night where the 3-point shot wasn’t dropping and free throws were at a premium.
Defensively, they haven’t looked as engaged in some time. Holding Boston to 84.1 points per-100 possessions is a nice result, and even if it was in part due to cold shooting (notable since their defensive struggles had a few unsustainably hot-shooting nights), their ability to force turnovers and make Boston chew clock up was encouraging. Morris is really the only thing they didn’t have an answer for (other than Monroe, who they have an answer for and just opted not to use since other things were clicking). Boston won’t shoot 3-of-22 from outside often, and they also probably won’t have a 20-free-throw advantage often, and Toronto took care of their own glass for good measure. The result was a solid win and a stranglehold on the top spot in the conference, which would have been in peril with a loss.
“We don’t work this hard and do all this just to give it away,” VanVleet said. “So, obviously, these last four games we want to close it out.”
There are still a lot of things to tighten ahead of next weekend. This is the time of year for that. What was important Wednesday was that they took a step in the right direction on a results basis on a night they really needed a win, which takes some of the pressure off the final four games and, theoretically, lets them approach them with strictly process in mind to prepare for the first round.