Raptors embrace season of giving by returning L to Celtics

Serge Ibaka bounced back in a big way.

‘Tis the season of giving.

Having had to lick their wounds on Christmas day after the Celtics handed them a thorough beating on their home floor, the Toronto Raptors returned the favor with a drubbing of Boston at TD Garden, 113-97 on Saturday night.

Every time you think things are about to head south for the Raptors, they find a way because they know they have the will. When Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were both out of the lineup, they went 8-2. With Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell all out now, they’ve improved to 3-2 and some would argue a Kyle Lowry shot at the regulation buzzer in Indiana could have had them at 4-1. Perhaps championship DNA is believing that what you’ve got is all you need.

Granted, the Raptors had the benefit of two days rest while the Celtics were on the second night of a back-to-back (if you count the Cavs on the first night as a B2B set), but there was plenty going against the visitors. After Gordon Hayward returned from injury on Christmas, Marcus Smart was also back in uniform after recovering from an eye infection. The Celtics were called for just 17 fouls to the Raptors’ 32 (both Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and OG Anunoby fouled out with over half the fourth quarter remaining) leading to more than double the amount of free-throw attempts, and were on their home floor where they carried a 13-1 record into the game, undefeated against the Raptors in over three years.

One thing that was evident from their battle in Toronto was that if the Raptors were going to compete, they needed someone to give Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet a helping hand. Patrick McCaw has received a lot of criticism for failing to produce at the level his consistent minutes would suggest, but he joined the party in a big way. The three-time champion finished with 18 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, a steal and a block that set the tone right out of the gate. It was after Jaylen Brown beat the Raptors down the floor for what looked like an easy finish at the rim, but McCaw rose up and came back down with Brown and the ball, forcing a jump ball and sending the message that this game would not be a repeat of the last.

Offensively, head coach Nick Nurse revealed at practice Friday that he wanted to get McCaw on the ball more as it would allow Lowry and VanVleet to occupy the shooting slots in plays more often, and the plan worked to perfection as they finished 9-for-19 from beyond the arc. Not only did McCaw aggressively seek attack the Celtics defense to open up opportunities for those two, he was equally aggressive in seeking out his own offense, finishing several plays at the rim himself when the Celtics looked to play him for the pass. In previous games, he has often taken himself out of the triple-threat position from beyond the arc, hoping for players to cut and find space for him to get them the ball in. This night was a complete 180. Even when he was off ball, McCaw made the Celtics pay for ignoring him by making smart cuts to the basket and even attacking the glass for offensive rebound opportunities.

The glass has been a major point of concern for the Raptors through the first two games of this matchup, conceding 34 offensive rebounds while collecting just 14 themselves. They won the rebounding battle 53-31 on this night, including 15-7 on the offensive glass. Credit Nurse once again for addressing some of the issue by taking Serge Ibaka — who was great with 20 points and 10 rebounds — out of the game early and bringing him back in to match up with frequent offensive glass cleaner Enes Kanter. Not only did Ibaka have the strength to handle Kanter, the Raptors were able to effectively attack him in the pick-and-roll whether it be the ball-handler or Ibaka consistently providing the finishing touch at the rim or the occasional jumper.

Toronto also wouldn’t have won the rebounding and larger hustle battle if it weren’t for Oshae Brissett. The man shuttling back-and-forth between his hometown in Mississauga and Toronto for both the 905 and the parent club was equal parts circus act and professional theft, springing up and down and whichever way he needed to chase the basketball, earning the Raptors extra possessions out of thin air. Staying ready is half the battle when you’re on the outside looking into the rotation, and after putting the ball into his own basket on Christmas — the Raptors really are a giving bunch — it was especially nice to see him bounce back against the Celtics doing the things he’s built his reputation off of.

“I’m not trying to go out there and do anything out of character,” Brissett said after the game. “I’m not trying to go out there and break somebody down, get to the basket. I know that’s not where guys want me to be right now. We got our go-to guys and everyone else just gotta go in there and do the dirty work… I just went out there and I was myself and grabbed boards and played defense and did everything to help us win that game.”

On the subject of doing and being above everything, Lowry was at his All-Star best, finishing with 30 points on 17 shots, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals. What else is there to be said about the greatest Raptor of all-time that hasn’t been said already. He was the best player on the floor as he has been on many a night during his time as a Raptor, and this latest stretch is cementing his place in February’s All-Star game in Chicago. Over the last five games in which Siakam, Gasol and Powell have been out, he is averaging 26.4 points, 8.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 56.4% inside the arc, 42.9% from 3-point range, and 80.6% at the free-throw line.

This Raptors team refuses to quit and it starts with their leader, Lowry. Every time the Celtics came knocking on the door, he ensured no entry with one dagger shot after the other. Toronto fans have long appreciated him, but there’s a different level of joy when you hear opposing team’s fans gasping or groaning when he makes a big play, especially when it’s Boston.

Toronto will be up against it Sunday with their own back-to-back against an Oklahoma City Thunder that is playing extremely well right now, but this is a win certainly worth enjoying. They get the Celtics back for beating them at home on Christmas, they keep the season series alive, and they show yet again that the ceiling of this team when fully healthy could still be good enough to compete with the best in the East.