Raptors Out-Everythinged in Game 1

Boston blows out the Raptors in Game 1. Worrying trends emerge as Nick Nurse forced to ponder adjustments.

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Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

Not only did everything we knew that could go wrong go wrong, but we found new things to get wrong and got them very wrong. Let us get the generic reporting out of the way first:

  • It’s only one game.
  • Pascal can’t be this terrible all series – or can he? Insert suspenseful music.
  • Surely we can’t be missing so many open looks in every game.
  • Insert more platitudes here.

Now to business. The Raptors have several problems to fix and you can pick any one to start. Let’s start with Siakam, though by no means was he the only issue.

Siakam’s finishing has been generally poor throughout the bubble and we entered this series thinking (hoping?) that he’d find his way and finish those chips at a higher percentage after either driving or posting up. Neither happened. Despite having good positions he’s blowing makeable shots which turn into four-point swings very quickly because the Raptors defense is unable to consistently hold Boston from scoring beyond a possession or two. At no point were the Celtics in a drought which emphasized the importance of scoring consistently, and when your star player is tentative, it’s trouble.

The Celtics also gave him different looks through Brown, Theis, Ojeleye and even Tatum. It was expected that his speed was going to be neutralized to a degree but they were also able to get production out of Ojeleye who punished him physically and pushed him out further than he’d like. His confidence also got hit by picking up some cheap fouls and Nick Nurse’s decision to keep him in the game with two fouls (questionable even at the time) backfired as he picked up his third and went to the bench with 4:15 left in the first.  It was a deflating moment for Siakam and the team because there was a sense that that was it for him, and recovery from this nightmarish start was a tall order. If missing everything up close and picking up needless fouls wasn’t bad enough, he also badly missed every shot from outside, even the uncontested ones. Add it all up and you have net negative production from a guy you expect to have a significant advantage in his matchups, a prerequisite to winning the series. The math just doesn’t work.

If you’re in the mood for silver lining then here’s one for you: the perimeter jumpers the Raptors did miss were mostly open looks. Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet and Powell all had shots they “normally make” which is consolation prize in an otherwise forgettable afternoon. The reason I don’t want to pull on that thread too much is because the Celtics will live with the Raptors bombing away from 25 feet as long as those shots are the product of settling. An “open” three resulting from not finding a seam in the defense to exploit and settling is very different than a three created because of ball movement against a stretched defense. We mostly saw the former which is worrying.

The Celtics were able to largely shut down what the Raptors were trying to do and only conceded what the Raptors would consider their third option on offense. The main reason for this? The Celtics are able to effectively help on any drives the Raptors manufacture through their high screening. They help on the guard’s attempted drive, forcing the Raptors to reset their set and try alternate paths. Those alternate paths aren’t nearly as lucrative as Lowry or Powell coming off the screen, punching the heart of the defense and kicking out or scoring. The kicks were missed and the drives were few and far between.

The Raptors defense is supposed to be the stop-gap which prevents any game from getting out of hand, and when it does, it’s relied on to get back into games. Neither happened. For the second straight game against Boston the defense was unable to cope with the quickness of the Boston bigs. Though it defies the laws of physics it turns out Skinny Gasol is much, much slower than Fat Gasol, both physically and as it appeared yesterday, mentally as well. Theis isn’t fast but he’s quick and he’s able to evade Gasol with and without the ball, which leaves the Spaniard trailing the play and constantly in recovery positions. What is supposed to be an advantage for the Raptors has become a liability with Gasol being all over the map. A side effect of this phenomenon is the Raptors, when only Gasol is in there, have no interior presence. Zero.

It wasn’t until Serge Ibaka and Gasol were together in the game and the Raptors were in a zone that they were able to keep guys in front of them. I don’t want to overstate this because even with both of them in there we saw stuff like this:

That’s also when some semblance of rebounding consistency was present, but overall the Raptors were -10 on the boards. Ibaka’s introduction, more specifically the two early threes he hit, is probably the only first half highlight for the Raptors worth mentioning. With the half-court offense constricted, the Raptors tried to find new options to generate points and one of them was Serge Ibaka post-ups.

The problem as you might expect is the catch on Ibaka post-ups. With guards constantly under duress they’re not able to have line of sight or weigh the entry passes, and what ended up happening is Ibaka catching the ball in the block outside his comfort zone. Two effects of that: first, he’s draining the shot clock limiting our options on the possessions, second, Boston’s defense has more time to get set and anticipate the play because it’s not like Ibaka’s a deceptive passer who can give you the eyes. What was to begin with a haphazard Plan C got inevitably worse.

Let’s get to the half-court offense which unfortunately we had to rely on. After all not everyone is the Nets. Fact: we have two short guards and one of them can only consistently create for himself. Boston can, for the most part, cover Lowry and VanVleet using single coverage and is very comfortable switching 1-3 (and often 1-4). This means they have to rely on quickness to get by your man and neither were able to make enough of a dent in the defense which might put Boston into scramble mode, something the Raptors were able to do easily against the Nets. I’d even go as far as saying that Boston’s defense didn’t even need to enter a high gear to contain a Raptors offense which had shooters misfiring, guards unable to penetrate, and their star player paralyzed. At times this game had a feeling of the Wizards sweep where their guards were dominating ours and it seemed that there was nothing we could do about it.

We knew this, though, and hoped that somehow the Raptors would be able to push in transition to force the issue. They tried but ended up getting cut off at the circle with frustration visible. I probably counted two occasions in the first half where the Raptors genuinely were able to push ahead after a missed Boston shot. I’d say that they had more success pushing in transition than executing in the half-court which says something. The Raptors floor spacing was dire in the worst of times and poor in the bestj. As we seek adjustments one has to think of throwing someone like Matt Thomas in there to keep the Boston defense honest because currently they’re able to cheat off everybody without repercussions. On the other hand, if Nurse believes (no matter what he says to the media) that this was a matter of the team being out of it for whatever reason and the shots not dropping, then you don’t want to over-adjust either.  My view is that going down 0-2 is a death sentence and if we see the same signals early in Game 2, it’s time to go prioritize floor spacing over whatever Fred was doing this game.

On this dark day there were a couple glimpses of hope which perhaps can be a harbinger of good fortune. The Boston defense is paying a lot of attention to the ball-handlers and preventing them from getting into positions of harm off the bounce. The tradeoff is giving up space underneath which is there to be exploited if the Raptors attack it off the ball. OG Anunoby had a few good moments getting behind the defense and being found by a pass with good results. Cuts from the side to the basket has to be something the Raptors try more of. Boston supplying pressure up top also leaves room for hi-lo passes to our bigs, if they’re able to finish. A couple such situations happened where the Raptors either missed a makeable shot or got fouled. There’s more to be had there.

The Raptors were 10-40 from three (25%) whereas Boston was 17-39 (44%). That disparity is almost impossible to overcome and as I said in the opening, remains a beacon of hope as the Raptors hope the law of averages kicks in at some point. Some of the threes were looks you’d take which we just missed, and it’s clear Boston has no issue with guys like Marc Gasol and OG shooting threes. They can live with that. It’s when Fred VanVleet goes 2-11 which is icing on the cake for them, especially as a few of Fred’s threes were forced and born out of frustration. He proved to be very easy to defend when the burden of creativity fell on him. Pushing him to the middle on his drives gives Boston the option for sending help from either direction. The Raptors have to adjust to that and have VanVleet penetrate from the sides (with the help of good screens, not the garbage ones that were set) where he’s able to kick out to the corner or top more easily. Yes, the baseline limits options but at least it won’t poke the ball out of your hands and run it back for a dunk.

This game was practically over in the first half not because of the 22-point differential in the second quarter, but because you didn’t see where a Raptors run could come from. For runs to happen you need a string of defensive stops which seemed impossible to find and an offense that, for a period, can overrun the opposition. Both were long shots to happen and never did.

Kyle Lowry upping his effort levels to 110% isn’t going to make a difference because as much as he can bully his way to the hoop to get fouled, that’s only a small component of the Raptors offense. When that becomes the primary means to generate offense you’re playing into Boston’s hands. They’ll gladly send extra help at the rim to frustrate Lowry (not that they need to, single-coverage is enough). They’re so good at either closing out passing lanes or anticipating the pass that they’re able to sit back and wait for Lowry (or any other guard) to make their decision and profit. There was a moment in the game which reminded me of Will Solomon versus the Magic. If you’re a longtime Raptors fan you know exactly the play I’m talking about. Unfortunately, I can’t find the video on YouTube but the call from Devlin went something like, “Oh no, Will Solomon, what are you doing?

Here’s the part that makes me sad: this is the first real test the Raptors have faced without Kawhi Leonard. They failed it badly. It is disheartening to see the Raptors not rise to the occasion but Nick Nurse has shown that he’s good at adjustments and it’s time to make some. Let’s hold off on judgement until we evaluate the response. Maybe a better start is all you need to put Boston on their heels. Maybe. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

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