When I was growing up, my brother and I used to play a game called “rock toss”. There was a huge metal bucket in our backyard, and we would see who could throw the most rocks in. My brother would always get 31 more tries than me, and I would always say: “I’d beat you if I had as many shots as you!” and he would always say: “Yeah, well you don’t.”
“I’d kill you if I had my gun.” – “Yeah? Well you don’t.”
Somewhat serendipitously, the Raptors lost to the Celtics while taking 31 less shots last night. That’s a large disparity, how did that come to pass? Well, the Raptors did a horrendous job denying the Celtics offensive rebounds, and did an equally poor job of taking care of the basketball. You allow Kemba Walker to grab 3 offensive rebounds, maybe you think that he’s getting lucky on some long rebounds, and maybe he is. You allow the 6’6″ Grant Williams to grab 6 offensive rebounds, and you start looking inward. The Raptors have to look inward after this last game, and this rebounding performance.
While I’m fairly certain that Marc Gasol will play himself into shape, and will be an important piece this season, his play thus far has been pretty bad. His lack of focus and participation on the glass has been glaring so far this season. The Raptors trotted him out to start against the Celtics small front-court, and a perceived size advantage turned out to be non-existent.
The onus isn’t solely on Gasol, though. Pascal Siakam has to pick his spots better when it comes to running fly routes or helping on the glass. He did a great job of this in the Pelicans game, closing out a lot of defensive possessions and pushing as a ball handler. The Celtics are a small, gritty, and fast team; they did a terrific job of shutting down transition offense from the Raptors (limiting them to 11 fast break points) and Siakam’s absence on the glass in favour of leaking out was noticeable. The difference is that Siakam had an All-NBA level defender (Brown) in his grill all game, and was looking for different ways to score against him; Gasol spent most of the game surrendering his mismatch and providing very little in the way of help on offense.
Getting away from the lowlights, there was a lot to like in this one. Kyle Lowry had a fantastic mix of inside and outside offense. There was a lot more punch to his pick n’ roll possessions than there was for a large portion of last year. He’s not coaxing the dive man into the lane every time, when the lane is there for him he’s taking it. Mix in that extra bit of ‘oomph’ and suddenly 6-10 from downtown doesn’t mean he’s just a 3-point shooter, it means he’s mixing it up and dominating a basketball game.
The aforementioned Siakam-Brown matchup was really fun to watch. Like in the playoffs, the Raptors opted for Siakam to take ‘pnr’ ball handling duties over to throw new looks at the defense and get him downhill. The only difference this time around was the fact that Siakam wasn’t gathering momentum to burst downhill, he calmly accepted the space he was given and fired away from downtown. He finished 5-7 from deep on the game, and ripped the Celtics defense to shreds in the third quarter.
Fred VanVleet was outstanding defensively, keeping Walker under wraps for most of the game. VanVleet didn’t have the same type of offensive output as he did in the season opener, but who’s to say how replicable that game was? He played his game, and when he did make tough decisions it was usually the shot-clock forcing his hand. The foundation of his excellent defense and jump-shot was there, anything else from VanVleet is absolute gravy.
Tatum and Brown paced the Celtics offense for most of this one, and Walker had a surge at the start of the fourth. With that being said, the Raptors individual defense was generally very good in all these matchups. The switching above-the-break was seamless for most of the game and really stymied the ‘pnr’ action of the Celtics. The let-down was, of course, the inability to rebound the ball in their own end. The 3-point variance swung really hard on the Raptors to close out the game, with the Celtics hitting three triples in a row in the final 5 minutes to close the game out.
The bright-side of this game is clearly that the Raptors nearly won a game in which the other team attempted 31 more shots than they did. Their initial defense was incredibly good for long stretches, and they shot the ball extremely well from downtown. For the most part, the players that the Raptors expected to rely on have been dynamite to start the season, save for Gasol. The rebounding problems seem like they’ll be sticking around, and losing to the Celtics always stings a little more than usual, but there’s lots to like here. Hopefully being the defending champs lends more clarity, patience, and resolve to this Raptors squad.
The defending champs play the Bulls tonight, and the road to the Finals rolls onward.
Have a blessed day.