Toronto was supposed to have a bench advantage in this series, and thus far it hasn’t really materialized. Partly that’s because of the nature of playoff series in general. Toronto won more regular-season games than Boston, but the main difference between these teams was among players who will be highly paid spectators in the playoffs. Sure, Matt Thomas might be better than Carsen Edwards, but neither of them are impacting this series.
That said, Nurse hasn’t really trusted the bench players he has at his disposal, particularly on the perimeter. Particularly in the backcourt, where Van Vleet and Kyle Lowry have hardly sat. Van Vleet played 81 minutes in the first two games, even with garbage time at the end of Game 1s, while Siakam is at 77 and Lowry 75. For Boston, the team with the allegedly weaker bench, Tatum is the only player above 70.
Surprisingly, Nurses’s one deep foray into the bench in Game 2 was to play big rather than go small. Chris Boucher got several minutes of run at the backup 4 spot. That position has most often been filled by the much smaller Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who juices Toronto’s highly effective transition game but becomes a liability in the halfcourt because of his lacking of shooting. In other situations it’s gone to a guard, with Anunoby moving up to the 4.
One wonders if Nurse will go in a completely different direction in Game 3. Toronto struggles to score in the halfcourt but has been deadly in transition all season. With the Celtics lacking weapons to hurt Toronto in the paint, the Raptors might consider going even smaller and faster and trying to press their biggest advantage.
That would require limiting the role of two of Toronto’s most important players – Gasol and Ibaka – and turning a lot more to the pool of perimeter reserves. Powell obviously figures prominently here – the Raptors need more from him after a combined 5-of-17 shooting in the first two games – but so does Terence Davis and perhaps even Thomas or (gasp) Stanley Johnson.
I like smallball for Toronto because it forces a war of attrition in the Raptors’ favor. Siakam and Anunoby can hold up as the frontcourt against a small Celtics team, but what does Boston do at the other end? Robert Williams becomes a lot harder to play if he has to defend at the 3-point line, which forces Stevens to play another one of his shaky perimeter backups. That, in turn, helps play into Toronto’s hands – it can play even more aggressively defensively if it knows there are multiple Boston players it can freely abandon.
At first, it seemed as though Siakam made a crucial turnaround. The first stat that stood out was the five fouls drawn, usually the bare minimum threshold of a focal point player being aggressive. Jayson Tatum, whose 14 free throw attempts triggered Toronto coach Nick Nurse to tee off on the refs after Game 2, drew eight.
But then you watch Siakam’s fouls and realize they aren’t what they seem. Two of them came on the defensive glass with Celtics fighting for the rebound. One was Marcus Smart’s comical flop in transition, which came off the ball and was just a random freak play. One was Grant Williams backpedaling with his hands in the air as Siakam launched himself into the Celtics big. Though the defender did not swipe down and was backpedaling — and the contact appeared to be all ball — Williams is an undersized rookie who is unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt from officials.
The only foul Siakam drew that could ostensibly represent a byproduct of aggressiveness came against the shortest Celtics player on the floor, Kemba Walker.
In Game 1, we kept waiting to see Siakam’s best play, the 4-1 pick-and-roll with Fred VanVleet. It never came. Thankfully, Nurse heeded the call and brought the action into a continuously underwhelming half-court attack. It’s a vital call, not just because it’s an ideal way to get Siakam some separation attacking downhill, but because it’s essentially the one place they can put Walker on defense where he is at a serious disadvantage.
In the early third quarter, Siakam caught Walker on a switch off the VanVleet ball screen and Walker played deep underneath him, creating a loose ball that Toronto recovered. Siakam then attacked again and Walker tried to sell out to take a charge and failed. The Siakam-VanVleet move had proven effective earlier in the second quarter, when they ran it as a flare action to get VanVleet an open shot on the elbow.
10. Things can’t get much worse
The bench almost has to be better by default. The shooting variance feels too extreme to last, even accounting for quality of looks. Siakam, Lowry, VanVleet and Gasol have all been through individual playoff slumps before and come out the other side of it. Heck, the Raptors were even down 0-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals last year only to win four in a row. They don’t have that nuclear “put Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo” adjustment here, but it can be done. They still have somewhere between a 15-30 percent chance to win the series depending on what model or series price you look at. Until those numbers are zero, it’s worth being at least cautiously optimistic.
Counterpoint: Yes they can.
I’m starting to feel like a bit of a broken record with this. Or, to modernize that phrase, I’m starting to feel like that time I downloaded “Liberate,” the lead single off of Disturbed’s second album, only for it to be a looped version of the same 30 seconds or so. (Luckily, the actual song doesn’t sound much different.) Whatever the medium, I’m getting repetitive: Siakam should be running more pick-and-roll.
Tuesday wasn’t quite as extreme as Game 1, when Siakam finished 11 possessions via post-up to just one via pick-and-roll before garbage time. In this one, he finished four post-ups for four points and two pick-and-rolls for one drawn foul. That’s a better distribution, and one the Raptors might be able to tilt even further.
Both of those pick-and-rolls in which Siakam finished as the ball-handler came in the fourth quarter and involved a guard screening. On the first, Boston miscommunicated tracking Kyle Lowry and Siakam had plenty of space to step into a 3 that he missed. On the second, Siakam veered away from a Fred VanVleet screen to attack a retreating Grant Williams and draw a shooting foul.
There were two instances of Siakam-VanVleet pick-and-roll from the second quarter that highlighted the value of this type of play.
On both, Kemba Walker is guarding VanVleet. Walker is a capable defender of pick-and-roll ball-handlers, but if the Raptors can produce a switch where Walker is guarding Siakam, that’s an alarm for Boston’s defence. Jaylen Brown is fine switching on to VanVleet if necessary, but he needs to do what he can to prevent the switch while also being aware of Siakam’s improved pull-up shooting. The result on the first is Walker and Brown dropping into the paint to protect against a drive while Walker hedges and recovers, leaving VanVleet open for 3. On the second, VanVleet screens for Siakam and then engages in a hand-off with him, producing an open 3 he misses.
The Raptors should go to that more. Per Synergy, Walker has been primarily involved in 26 defensive possessions through two games, a little less often than the 76ers were able to attack him with, with far less quality guard play.
As an aside, getting a switch to post up Smart does not qualify as good process here.
Powell is 5-for-17 in this series with just a single assist. The Raptors might have been better off using a smaller lineup for defensive purposes in Game 2’s lamentable defeat, but that would have necessitated trusting Powell to contribute. Thus far, he has not. Other than a slicing layup off a curl, a pet play for the Raptors offence, he did nothing in Game 2.
This is not to pick on just Powell. The Raptors were supposed to have a significant depth advantage in this series given Gordon Hayward’s absence. That just has not played out. To speak more to the offence, the Raptors’ highest offensive rating against the Celtics when any reserve has played is a dreadful 95.2, in the 18 total minutes Terence Davis II has played. (To be fair, the Raptors’ starting group is scoring at 104.2 points per 100 possessions, not exactly a great mark. The starters with Ibaka in Marc Gasol’s place have put up a 118.2 in 15 minutes, by far the team’s best look, especially offensively. Anything that has gone beyond the top six has been an abject disaster, especially when Lowry has not been on the floor.)
Ibaka has scored 32 points on 50 percent shooting in the series. In 66 total minutes, the rest of the reserves have scored 23 points on 8-for-25 shooting, the most of which is obviously just Powell’s output.
The most obvious solution for the Raptors is for Powell to just play better. He has had big moments in the playoffs before, and has the necessary tools to succeed against the Celtics. (Just tell him the Celtics are the Bucks, who he has tormented in both of the Raptors’ series against them. They both wear green. It’s close enough.) Backup centre, Robert Williams is an excellent rim protector, but he should be able to have some success at the rim against Boston.
There are, of course, other options.
Matching minutes against Time Lord
Marcus Smart grabbed all the headlines after his flashy shooting in Game 2, but a 5-for-5 first quarter by Robert Williams III — a.k.a. Time Lord — should be turning heads too. Williams has replaced Enes Kanter as the backup centre for the Celtics, and his youthful energy has somewhat exposed the aging duo of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
Against Gasol in the pick and roll, Williams’ rim run here is simply too quick for the Raptors’ big to recover, ending in an easy basket.
Help defense has been a challenge for the Raptors on Williams, as Powell fails to collapse and box out Williams on this thunderous dunk.
Ibaka has been in tough too, losing Williams’ body on this possession, resulting in more easy points for Boston.
It’s a more drastic move, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Raptors match a slighter lineup with Williams’ minutes on the floor. Whether that’s Siakam spending some time at the five or Chris Boucher slotting in at centre, Williams has simply proven too athletic for either Gasol or Ibaka to deal with for consistent stretches. Using Boucher in this spot has the added effect of providing rest for Toronto’s starters; any baskets scored on the other end is gravy.
A more modest move would be to keep Gasol on the floor longer. Playing just 21 minutes in Game 2 due to foul trouble, Gasol was a step slow on a couple pick and rolls, but overall did his thing on defense: great positioning, solid rebounding, and tenacious in the gaps.
While Williams might get a couple rim runs against Gasol, we know the big Spaniard can be counted on to close possessions with rebounds and not lose the young man’s body. That can counteract the Time Lord’s effectiveness when he comes off the bench for energy minutes.
With Tatum and Kemba cooking in the Sixers series, there wasn’t as much of a need for Smart to take on a heavier load offensively, but the Raptors have much better wing defenders than Philadelphia and Smart has recognized that and been more assertive in Round 2. While his touches and time of possession have remained relatively similar, Smart’s been way more aggressive in pulling the trigger on even semi-contested looks. He has taken 24 FG’s in the first two games of this series after logging just 30 in the entirety of the first round.
“He does whatever needs to be done to win,” Stevens said. “And tonight we needed a little jolt offensively.”
While many, including myself, expected Smart to take on a bigger playmaking role in the playoffs without Hayward, it’s actually been Jayson Tatum who’s stepped into that initiator role, even more when Kemba Walker sits. Tatum’s touches (68.1 to 73.5) and time of possession (3.5 to 4.4) have both skyrocketed. Given the leap he’s shown in his passing, it’s no surprise that Brad Stevens is handing him the keys to the offense. Playing in more of an off-ball role makes that spot-up shooting all the more important, and Smart getting back to last year’s level on catch-and-shoot jumpers could be a crucial factor in swinging this series Boston’s way.
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, so the importance of Thursday’s contest can’t be overstated. Still, knowing there’s a mountain to climb can be an overwhelming thought. Sometimes you can’t help but gaze at the top and lose focus of what’s in front of you.
If the Raptors could take anything from the way in which Leonard approached the Bucks series, it would be that. Where do you go from here? Leonard wasn’t being facetious in his answer. He had that rare ability to zero in on the task at hand while blocking out almost everything else around him. The only thing that mattered was what came next.
Before the Raptors could beat Milwaukee four times in a row, before they could move on to the finals or become champions, they had to win Game 3. Leonard made sure that happened, by any means necessary.
Leonard played 52 minutes in that season-saving double-overtime victory, most of them on one leg. He scored nine of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, and then another eight in the second OT period. It wasn’t as iconic as his series-winning buzzer-beater from the previous round, and it wasn’t as dominant as his 45-point explosion in Game 1 against Philadelphia, but that performance was every bit as crucial.
Where do they go from here, and – with Leonard gone – who will take them there?
The literal answer, on account of the pandemic, is they’re not going anywhere. They’ll switch sides and sit on the opposite bench for Game 3, but they won’t have to travel, change hotels, or play in front of a hostile Boston crowd, which could definitely work in their favour.
In terms of who could step up and give the Raptors new life in this series, there are a few good options. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were the team’s two best players in the title-clinching Game 6 win over Golden State. Pascal Siakam has come through in big moments – he had 25 points and 11 rebounds on 9-of-18 shooting in Game 3 against Milwaukee. Norman Powell, who scored 19 points off the bench that night, has been a playoff hero before.
It’s not that the Raptors don’t have a player capable of willing them to victory in a must-win game. It’s that, sans Leonard, they don’t have the guy you feel comfortable banking on.
On one play you just have to tip your hat to the defensive acumen of Smart – even though Raptors head coach Nick Nurse believed Siakam was fouled – and on the out-of-bounds action it was just common carelessness that could have happened to anybody, really.
But here’s the thing: Siakam isn’t just anybody. Not anymore, at least.
The Raptors’ leading scorer during the regular season and all-around best player, Siakam is a star, and as such the level of expectation and scrutiny has to increase during the post-season.
It’s what comes with the territory of having reached that milestone.
Bottom line, a team’s top offensive option can’t just be shooting 39.4 per cent from the field as he’s done so far in the post-season, and certainly can’t only go 0-for-3 in the fourth quarter for two points when his team needs so much more, as was evident Tuesday night.
Though it may seem unfair to put this on a player who’s experiencing being relied upon so heavily and in such important games for the first time in his basketball-playing life, there’s an expectation that a team’s top scorer will be just as good, if not better, in the playoffs than the regular season, and at the moment Siakam is falling short.
So, then, what to do?
There are many aspects of Siakam’s game that have looked out of sync, but the most significant has definitely been his accuracy from inside.
The Raptors were able to bounce back from an 0-2 series deficit last year, but without Kawhi Leonard, is it realistic to expect a similar result this season? Jack Armstrong gives his thoughts, and discusses whether the pressure to be the No. 1 guy is affecting Pascal Siakam’s game.
Siakam might not have had to rely on so many post-ups if he’d been able to score in the open court, force the pace and get easier baskets against one defender in transition than two or three in halfcourt sets.
Norm Powell might have been effective in a free-flowing game instead of being part of a sluggish halfcourt offence.
The defence was good, but the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum still scored 34 points and Marcus Smart made five improbable three-pointers in the fourth quarter alone. But if the Raptors had held Tatum down maybe Kemba Walker wouldn’t have been bad for the first three quarters.
As Raptors coach Nick Nurse has said countless times this season, each game presents its own unique challenges, and concentrating on one thing can often open a host of other problems.
There is no doubt the Raptors have to be more efficient from three-point range than they’ve been. They have never missed more threes in a playoff game than they have in each of the first two against the Celtics in this series, and they can’t win four of the next five if that continues.
But if Siakam gets going in the post, maybe it opens even more space for perimeter shooters.
Again, everything is intertwined.
The Raptors excelled in transition all season, forcing turnovers and converting them into scores better than any other teams (the Raptors led the NBA in fast-break points in the regular season and in the first round). Letting Siakam, OG Anunoby or Norman Powell run the floor is their bread and butter. They also thrive in letting Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet attack downhill to get to the rim (even though VanVleet isn’t a great finisher in the paint).
But Boston stays in front of those guys and centres Robert Williams and Daniel Theis are quick, springy jumpers who make life tough down low if they even get there.
When Toronto thrived in Game 2, they did their usual: Turning turnovers into easy points the other way.
But when Boston stabilized and cut way down on the mistakes in the fourth, Toronto’s lack of half-court scoring ability did it in.
The Raptors were middle-of-the-pack in terms of isolation scoring in the regular season. It’s even tougher to get buckets that way in the playoffs, especially against a defence of Boston’s calibre.
It’s not a major strength of Siakam’s game. Kawhi Leonard is gone. He can’t bail them out 1-on-1 (or 1-on-2) anymore.
They’re trying different things (like about double the post-up attempts from the regular season), but only four teams scored less frequently from post-up attempts heading into the playoffs, so it doesn’t project as a recipe for success. Toronto also generated the second-fewest points per possession off cuts in the regular season.
That was a little different in Tuesday night’s Game 2 win over the Raptors, as Tatum took — and made — 14 free throws en route to a 34-point outburst. All those freebies contributed to the 22-year-old setting a new playoff career-high for himself and the Celtics earning a 102-99 victory.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse took umbrage to that, voicing his displeasure with the officiating crew after Boston’s win.
“The only frustrating part about it is this: he shoots 14 free throws, which is as much as our whole team shoots,” said Nurse, whose Raptors now trail the Celtics 2-0 in the series. “That’s the frustrating part. I think our guys were working hard on him and we were doing a pretty good job.
“He did make some good shots,” he said of Tatum. “They were obviously getting him the ball a lot, getting him in space. We could’ve helped a little bit better here and there, but they took very good care of him tonight.”
That was as far as Nurse’s criticism of the officials would go, since the NBA Coach of the Year didn’t want to have his wallet feel the repercussions of any of his comments. And he was a little bit off with his numbers, as the Raptors shot 19 free throws in Game 2, making 16 of them.
But really, Tatum earned his trips to the line, and was just being a smart player. Eight of his 14 free throws came in the third quarter, when he made it a point to attack the Raptors after they hit the foul limit at the 7:45 mark. And Nurse didn’t seem to mind when Tatum got slapped with a questionable offensive foul in the closing seconds, leading to an extremely weak technical foul on the the C’s forward. (Yes, they always hit players with a T if they punch the air in anger so long as their name isn’t LeBron or Giannis or Kawhi, but come on, it’s the playoffs!)
Hating teams from Boston has become a popular thing to do over the years, mostly because of all the success the various teams from that city have had but also because of how much Boston fans have enjoyed all of those victories over the years, as well.
But now in the NBA bubble in Orlando something weird is happening – the Boston Celtics are becoming a likable team, much to the dismay of a lot of NBA fans who suddenly kind of don’t mind cheering for – or at least respecting – as they continue their playoff run.
The Celtics, thanks to a red-hot Marcus Smart, went up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors with a 102-99 victory on Tuesday. A quick Twitter search of “Celtics likable” during and after the game showed a lot of fans of other teams trying to come to terms with their enjoyment of watching this young Celtics team playing fun basketball.
Tatum’s ascension means that Walker is in an unfamiliar position: Sometimes he isn’t the best player on the floor. If this bothers Walker — as it might other stars — he doesn’t show it.
“I’m going to have my nights where the fourth quarter is mine, but I am willing to have the nights where I am just spotting up or I am the decoy,” Walker said. “It makes life so much easier and it’s so fun.”
Walker was sitting next to Tatum when he had his first “Welcome to Boston” moment. It was on the bench right before his first preseason game, against his former team, the Hornets.
“I look over at Jayson and I’m like, ‘Damn, this whole arena is packed right now.’ ” Walker said. “Sold out. Not one seat missing. And it’s a preseason game. The first preseason game! For me, I’m like, ‘This is different!’”
But leaving Charlotte was a shock for Walker. He expected to stay, he said. Walker was eligible for a so-called supermax extension, but the Hornets came in with an offer that was less than that, conscious of paying the luxury tax. He began to consider other teams. At first, Walker said, he was heavily pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Mavericks and the team he grew up closest to, the New York Knicks. He considered going home.
“I feel it’s always tough to go home and play for your hometown team because there are a lot of distractions, but I started to get really excited actually about the possibility,” Walker said. “I thought about it hard.”
But instead, the Celtics called.
They also contend Ujiri was not wearing the proper credentials to enter the court minutes after Toronto’s title-winning performance in June 2019.
Both Ujiri and the Raptors declined to comment Wednesday.
A petition urging Strickland’s firing from the Alameda sheriff’s staff has gained nearly 10,000 signatures, according to a report from KTVU-TV in Oakland, which has been tirelessly following the incident for more than a year.
“Alan F. Strickland continues to skirt the law by abusing his position as a law enforcement officer,” the petition reads, citing the deputy’s past criminal conviction for insurance fraud, first reported by KTVU.
According to the station’s reporting, Strickland “has accrued about $150,000 in workers’ compensation so far,” court records show. And he has not been back to work since.
The petition notes that this claim is “dubious … another attempt to fraudulently receive worker’s compensation benefits at the expense of taxpayer money.”
The continuing saga continues to cast a bit of a pall today over Toronto’s championship and how Ujiri should have been able to celebrate it.
And the feeling is NBA-wide.
Despite evidence showing he was clearly the aggressor and the fact that Alameda County prosecutors declined to pursue charges, the sheriff’s deputy who has tried to sue Masai Ujiri is still refusing to give up.
Lawyers for Alan Strickland said in filings submitted to court Tuesday that Ujiri, the president of the Toronto Raptors, is “taking advantage of the now pervasive anti-law enforcement prejudices and to falsely allege racial animus and prejudicial bias is the reason for Strickland’s conduct on the date of the incident.”
Deputy accuses Raptors’ Masai Ujiri of falsely claiming ‘racial animus’
A shoving incident between Strickland, who was working security in Oakland for Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June, 2019, occurred after the Raptors won the championship and Ujiri tried to get onto the court to celebrate with his team.