Raptors discover identity in humiliation of Celtics

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USA TODAY Sports Images
USA TODAY Sports Images

No one knows who the Toronto Raptors are this season. It has become gospel this season, peaking among local writers after the embarrassing January 31 loss to the Bucks, that the Raptors do not know their own identity. Before the game, chatting with beat writers far more talented and dedicated than myself, a few admitted to having written that same story several times this season. It has spread to broader, national outlets, culminating in Paul Flannery’s excellent piece for SBNation repeating those same questions about identity and cohesion. Many of those questions were answered in the Raptors’ 118-95 humbling of a would-be Eastern Conference rival in the Boston Celtics.

So who are the Raptors? This win proved that now we – as well as the team itself – have a pretty good idea of what they can be. And the answer may be frightening.

“There’s a lot of talent here, so I don’t know what the ceiling is, but I know there’s more,” said Jeremy Lin after the game.

At their theoretical best, Toronto is a humming machine with multiple parts. We hadn’t seen those varying parts work together at the same time until tonight. Toronto has a few different styles of offence. Kyle Lowry is a monster in the pick-and-roll, able to create good looks almost every time in the set. Kawhi Leonard is dominant in isolation and the post, happy to whip the ball to shooters if he forces rotations ahead of his move. Marc Gasol is a brilliant passer, and his teammates already know that when Gasol touches the ball, all they need to do is run around like crazy and something good will happen. Combine those things? Toronto is apparently quite good.

“I think you’re seeing a lot more cuts around here than you’ve seen in a long time since the addition of Gasol,” said coach Nick Nurse after the game. “And I think you’re going to see a lot more because there’s a lot of guys getting layups at the end of them.”

After the starters kept the game close in the first quarter (mostly because Pascal  Siakam connected on three open corner triples in the quarter) it was Gasol-led bench lineups that broke the game open in the second. Gasol was the common element in a variety of weirdo groups that combined for an 18-0 run. Even after only six games in a Raptors’ uniform, it is clear that Gasol needs to be involved in the offence when he’s on the court.

In the first half against the Celtics, there was a direct correlation between Gasol either touching the ball or setting an on-ball screen and the Raptors scoring some points. Frequently, those points came in multiples of three; Gasol spoon-fed a variety of Raptors open triples from his throne in the high post, dishing to Norman Powell especially to keep the offence flowing. Players cut far more frequently when Gasol is handling in the high post. Lowry back cut his man multiple times, and Powell even busted out a tricksy off-ball slip screen that didn’t fool anyone but was funny.

When Gasol and Lowry were both involved in primary actions? Forget about it. Lowry found Gasol for an easy triple on a simple pick-and-pop, and later a Lowry off-ball screen for Powell flew directly into a handoff from Gasol that created a layup. Gasol’s ability to toggle immediately from action to action in the half-court is the perfect connective tissue between the offensive skills of Lowry, Siakam, and Leonard. Gasol’s 5 points-5 rebounds-5 assists in the first half grossly understated his value. (He was also a +17 in the first half, which may be a better tabulation of his contributions.)

When the starters came back into the game to close the second quarter, they pounced on a faltering Celtics’ offence. Boston couldn’t handle the switching pressure Toronto offered, especially as Toronto’s aggression at the point of contact frequently pushed Boston backwards and out of their primary actions. As a result, Boston’s offence ground to slow isolations, as many of their shots were contested floaters, midrange jumpers, and awkward layups. That physicality resulted in a free throw disparity the size of Ibaka’s biceps – 28 Boston attempts to Toronto’s 14 – but ultimately was a major reason why Toronto won.

“It was early help, it was often, it wasn’t perfect, but it was hustle,” said Nurse. “It wasn’t quite the right rotations all the time but it didn’t matter, we were pursuing the ball early when we were beaten, making them make another play and when they would zing it out, somebody would be right underneath that guy and we did it all over again. We contested shots really well.”

Kickstarted by their physical defence, Toronto outscored Boston 29-9 in fast-break points. Siakam especially was horrifyingly efficient out in the open floor, finishing with 22 points in only 16 used possessions. But the open floor wasn’t where all of Toronto’s scoring came from.

The half-court offence was crisp. Lowry and Serge Ibaka combined to dominate, as they so frequently do in the pick-and-roll, and Lowry fed Ibaka some picturesque pocket passes for layups and dunks. Think Gasol’s five first-half assists were impressive? Lowry collected eight, as his ownership of Toronto’s offence rivalled Leonard’s ownership of Tatum (or, really, whomever Leonard was guarding on the night).

The result was a 66-45 lead at half for Toronto, whose thorough domination can only really be captured in one tweet.

The third quarter was the proverbial tipping point. Toronto started out sloppy on offence and passive on defence. Just when it seemed like the lead might dwindle, or Toronto might not have the killer instinct, Leonard proved exactly why he is one of the best players in the world.

He hit a jab-step triple from the corner to keep Boston at bay. He protected the rim perfectly on the other end, and then methodically turned to a hook shot when Boston opted not to double him in the post. Leonard then posted up in semi-transition, drawing a lob pass over a fronting defender for the uncontested layup. Leonard followed that by posting up the smaller Kyrie Irving, drawing the double-team, and whipping a one-handed bullet to Siakam in the corner for his career-high-tying fourth triple. Leonard finished with an efficient 21 points-6 rebounds-4 assists in only 25 minutes, but it was how he got his offence that mattered to Toronto.

Leonard’s offence has frequently felt isolated from Toronto’s offence this season. When Leonard is in the game, Toronto shoots less often at the rim and from the corner, and more frequently from midrange. There have been two distinct offences, but that separation has been lessening of late. Against Boston, Leonard’s attack fit perfectly within the flow of Toronto’s larger schemes. Sure, he got his isolation and post-up attempts. But players cut and spotted up around his post-ups. Leonard complemented the offence, rather than the other way around.

“We’ve done a lot of work here in the last month, five weeks, with how we’re reacting when (Leonard) has the ball,” said Nurse. “How are we spacing, who’s going where, what are we doing? Because we all know that in a late-game, crunch-time situation he’s probably going to have the ball and he’s not always going to be able to shoot because of different defensive schemes. We’ve worked hard at that. You’re seeing some of that.”

The result of that work provided the death blow against Boston. By the time Siakam threw down a one-hander in transition, Toronto had built a 30+ point lead, and Boston had waved the white flag.

Toronto’s ultimate flex was having OG Anunoby isolate to end the third quarter. Sure, he slipped and turned it over, but what better way is there to laugh in Boston’s face? The fourth quarter was really a chance to watch weirdo lineups, a Malcolm Miller triple (in his first minutes of the season), and Gasol try to chase down Lowry for the team-high in assists. Remember when the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns signed Shaq to try to get him to jumpstart their transition game? Gasol is that, but good. He finished with 8 assists to Lowry’s 11.

We still may not know the Toronto Raptors, but at least we have a hint at the answer. We’ve long predicted their ceiling, but we haven’t yet seen all the pieces add up to more than the sum of their parts. By my count, this was the first game in which Leonard, Lowry, and Siakam all played at their peak levels at the same time. (They finished +9 in their team-high 22 minutes together on the court.) But look, don’t think this answers the identity question with any finality. Even the Raptors themselves downplayed their accomplishments after the game. Danny Green and Jeremy Lin both limited their praise of the team’s defence, instead insinuating that Boston’s woes were probably more self-inflicted on the offensive end. On the other hand, Nick Nurse was positively beaming after the game, lavishing praise on his guys for their effort and execution. The point is, the Raps don’t want to be overconfident.

But for one night, the Raptors reached their peak. This isn’t proof that they will maintain it, and I can guarantee that there will be more pieces about the Raptors’ missing identity before the season is done. But we know what the Raptors can be because now we’ve seen it. And it’s something that every team in the league should fear.

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