Buckle up, folks. We’re in for one fun season.
That’s the message the Toronto Raptors sent Friday night in front of an excitable 19,800-strong crowd at the Scotiabank Arena, defeating the Boston Celtics 113-101 on the backs of Kawhi Leonard’s 31-point, 10 rebound outing, Kyle Lowry’s well-rounded 15-point, six assist, six rebound, three charges drawn with no turnovers, and Serge Ibaka finding his groove at the center position with 21 points and six rebounds.
In a game full of lead changes and momentum swings as frequent as the lineup changes, it was a decisive 12-2 run over the final 2:30 of play that validated all the exuberance over the new season.
Newcomer Danny Green triggered it all, playing the steady game that made him such a vital cog in San Antonio’s championship machine. Never in need of touches but always in search of impact plays, he seems set on reclaiming his status as one of the premier 3-and-D players in the league. After Al Horford hit a three with just under three minutes remaining to get Boston within two, Green answered right back to push the lead back up to 104-99, making a tremendous read after a miscommunication between Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward on a switch, jetting across from one corner to the other to can a three.
“Yeah, I didn’t know what the time was, I just know they had a switch,” Green said. “Most of the game they’ve been trying to scram out but tried to do something different and run the baseline a little bit, got some freedom, let it fly with confidence. Luckily it went in, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The lack of fear Green expresses for the consequences of taking a shot in a high leverage situation is refreshing, but dealing with that kind of pressure is old news when you’re entering you’re 10th season as a pro, especially with the bulk of that service time coming with an organization like the Spurs.
“A ton, just have fun with the situation, play basketball.” Green told Raptors Republic when asked about how much of an impact those big moments with the Spurs have helped in late-game situations. “At the end of the day, it is what it is, those moments, we’ve kind of gotten used to, me and Kawhi, we’ve been in it quite a few times.
“Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t, but regardless of the fact, you’ve got to do it confidently. Be out there, aggressive, assertive, try to make winning plays for your team whether it be the offensive end or the defensive end. Most importantly for us, defensive end of the floor, for me anyway. Shots come they come, sometimes they fall sometimes they don’t, but you can always make up for it on the defensive end of the floor.”
Green sealed the victory with a vicious block to protect an eight point lead with 1:14 remaining, a spectacular chase-down effort to reject Jayson Tatum.
It was indeed a special defensive effort overall from the Raptors, limiting the Celtics to 42.9 percent shooting at the rim and just 31.2 percent shooting on jumpers in the 4-14 foot range per Cleaning the Glass. This is the value of the improved versatility and flexibility the roster now has, and even though the three-point shooting for Boston was a more than respectable 38.9 percent, it had less to do with the Raptors’ inability to contest the perimeter, and more their lackadaisical efforts to corral rebounds after getting defensive stops.
This appears to be an early issue as the Raptors employ more of what Celtics head coach Brad Stevens referred to as “skill-ball” instead of small-ball, but certainly something that is fixable over time. Besides, you don’t need to rebound when Lowry is taking charges that get you the ball back without the need to rebound.
Toronto’s all-star point guard left his fingerprints all over this game on both ends of the floor, and his own three-pointer, baseline fadeaway J along with two charges drawn on Tatum came in the final minutes could have made for his own clutch highlight reel.
“A win is a win,” Lowry said after the game. “Take every possession, every day to get better. Continue to get better as a team. We look at it like every play in the game means something. That’s what we did today.”
It was only the second game of the regular season, but by all accounts of those involved, it felt as though, and was played as though there was something more at stake. The crowd played their part in providing a playoff atmosphere and the players delivered.
Which brings us to Leonard. It was not all smooth sailing for either or his team, as he struggled with his shot out of the gate for the second straight game and Toronto seemed to struggle matching the physicality of Boston as the first half wore on. If not for a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Fred VanVleet off a Celtics turnover or Ibaka’s strong first half, they would have been stuck seven with the momentum well and truly in favor of Boston heading into the second half.
With the opportunity to ensure that was the end of the Raptors’ spiral, Leonard took over the offense. Over the first six-and-a-half minutes of the third quarter, the 27-year-old scored 15 of his team’s 20 points and also assisted on a Serge Ibaka dunk.
“He did a little bit of everything, right? He hit one or two threes in that quarter, he took a couple in transition to the basket and he had a couple of isolation post-up plays,” head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “Again, that’s kind of his versatility, I think there’s some growth to be done with his screen and roll game, right? I think we can get him up the floor and get him into some more screen and rolls … he’s got a really good handle on it, he hasn’t really busted that out yet but he can do that as well.”
Several players contributed towards steadily tightening the noose over the course of the fourth quarter to come away with the victory, but it was Leonard who gave them the rope in that third quarter.
“He’s definitely being more assertive, taking over, or at least wanting to take over,” Danny Green said in the locker room. “You can tell he’s a competitor who wants to compete, he wants the ball, he wants to be on the floor at all times, he wants to make the big plays and winning plays. Offensively, he did a good job of taking us there, carrying us there, making those big plays for us, especially on the offensive end of the floor.”
It felt like just yesterday when Jose Calderon was in Boston, receiving an inbounds pass towards the end of the third quarter of a tight game between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, and Kevin Garnett clapped in his face, waved his finger a-la-Dikembe Mutombo and jawed at him all the way down the court. Calderon held up his own end of the bargain by assisting on a Jason Kapono three-pointer to end the quarter, before ordering the former league MVP to take a seat.
The moment was fun, a rare one in which the Raptors could feel as though they were competing in a game against the very best and that it could tell them something about who they were. That’s what early season optimism can bring. The Raptors had acquired Jermaine O’Neal that off-season and were looking to make a statement early on against the defending champion Celtics. They ultimately failed in disastrous fashion, blowing a 12-point halftime lead, a six-point lead at the end of three, as Raptor killer Paul Pierce scored 22 fourth quarter points to rally his team.
When a superstar gets going like that against inferior opposition, it creates a sense of helplessness, a disparity in knowing there’s no one in your own jersey who can hit right back, and ultimately, as the Raptors showed over the past three post-seasons, a meek surrender.
On this night, the Raptors showed that they now have someone capable of stopping the bleeding, can dictate the pace of the game, and is worthy of the big moment. If the pieces around him go about their business in similar fashion to this outing, the fun is only just beginning.
- Raptors starters: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
- Celtics starters: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford
- Jonas Valanciunas struggled coming off the bench, looking sluggish when he checked in during the first quarter and digging himself in foul trouble early and often. He finished with four points and five rebounds in just over 14 minutes of action.
- The five-man-unit of Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Valanciunas struggled mightily in the first half and were marginally better in the second.
- Gordon Hayward looked good for most of the night. He’s another whose so smart and skilled that even while he works his way back will be able to be a difference-maker for his ball-club.
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