— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) September 6, 2020
— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) September 6, 2020
One — Momentum: The Raptors rode the excitement of their buzzer-beating win in Game 3 to a near wire-to-wire win over the Celtics. Toronto’s defense showed no signs of letting up, as it held a top-five offense in check for the third-straight game. Granted, the Celtics are pretty decent on defense themselves which is how they stayed close despite shooting an abysmal 7-of-35 from deep, but the pressure is mounting. Toronto’s amorphous defense adapts and gradually constricts opponents over the course of a series, just like how it gradually solved Milwaukee after being in a 0-2 hole last season. Boston will shoot better than it did tonight, but they won’t get many easy looks
The answer doesn’t really matter at this point — Mannix says it’s borderline and I was stuck on the notion that I’d never once pondered it. It’s the question itself, one that looked so warranted hours later that night when the Toronto point guard was his gutsy, gritty self in the Raptors’ 100-93 win over Boston that evened their Eastern Conference semifinals series 2-2, that forces you to appreciate this career that he has carved out.
Unlike Lowry’s magical pass to O.G. Anunoby for the game-winner in Game 3, which was perfection personified, his Saturday outing was perfectly imperfect: 22 points on five of 16 shooting, 11 boards, seven assists, five turnovers, 44 minutes and a plus-10 rating that tied Fred VanVleet for tops on the team. But the lasting memories from our press row seats were the plays that — cliche as it might sound — didn’t show up next to his name in the box score.
• Lowry losing his right shoe late in the second quarter, when he tossed it out of bounds, tried to spot up in the corner without it after the ball came back down to that end of the floor, then changed his mind while sliding it back on in time to help out with the transition defense on the next possession. This play was of no actual consequence, but there was something charming about watching Lowry decide how to keep hooping when he was down a sneaker.
• Beating Jayson Tatum to the loose ball on the sideline with 2:53 left in the fourth, when Lowry went Superman style to the floor, tried to tip it off of the Celtics star as they slid out of bounds and pumped his fist as he jumped up off the floor (the Raptors were up nine at that point, and a Boston challenge led to a jump ball).
• The offensive foul he drew on Tatum with 32.6 seconds left, when he got to that spot on the left side first and proceeded to position himself perfectly to receive the off-arm shove from Tatum and earn the whistle.
None of these tweaks is anything major. Nurse and VanVleet downplayed them a bit after the game, and the Celtics felt their issue was a matter of execution rather than scheme. Still, six 3s in the third quarter in a series where offence has been at an immense premium is a big breakthrough, and the way VanVleet and Lowry were able to navigate Boston’s different coverages to keep finding looks for themselves, their bigs and each other should lend encouragement for Game 5.
“I was extremely happy,” Nurse said. “We made a lot of them, we had a whole bunch more go in and out in a stretch, but they were very, very good looks. Very happy.”
This all cuts the other way, too. The Celtics shot 7-of-35 on 3s, and though the Raptors have more shooting talent on aggregate, no amount of elite defence can be expected to produce that kind of result regularly. It’s overly simplistic to suggest 3-point variance alone determines outcomes — we spend the morning after each game with the Raptor Recalibration to find areas the Raptors could better insulate themselves from those swings — or that variance is all that’s determining 3-point percentages. But like the Celtics won Game 1 thanks to a 24-point edge from the corners and had to be wary of what a comfortable victory would look like with normalized shooting performances, the Raptors won’t rely on a 30-point edge from outside to hold true again in Game 5.
That’s why how the Raptors made their 3s on Saturday is so important. Even if they come out Monday with a different approach in creating them, it’s the flexibility, willingness and acumen to adjust that gives fans hope that the Raptors can approach 40 percent from beyond the arc again. The struggles of their half-court offence demand it, and they have four of the smartest at applying those real-time adjustments in Lowry, VanVleet, Nurse and Gasol. Celtics coach Brad Stevens showed throughout Game 4 that he’ll be ready with more tweaks, too.
“It’s not rocket science from my end,” VanVleet said. “Keep generating good looks. As long as we keep generating good looks, I’m confident in our guys and for sure confident in myself that they are going to fall. A lot of shooting is in between the ears. … I think we are working ourselves back into who we know we can be, which is good shooters.”
It’s a make-or-miss league only when you’re not making them.
All of this, save for the bucket in transition, can fall in the “don’t do this” pile when the shots are not falling. There are only so many ways to score, though. The Raptors need Siakam to soak up a certain amount of the offence because Lowry and Fred VanVleet can initiate only so much of the attack, especially when they’re playing well above 40 minutes every other night. (Neither played more than Siakam on this night. He sat for just two minutes and change.)
“It’s just a fine line between makes and misses,” Siakam said. “If one of those hit the rim another way, it’s a different story. That’s literally what it is. I’m just gonna continue to do that. I can’t change who I am. I’m going to continue to play the way I’ve been playing. It’s just a matter of time.”
The Raptors have to continue to hope so because as much as it has seemed like it at various points throughout this series, there are precious few workable alternatives. By the way, Siakam had 23 points, 11 rebounds and, crucially, no turnovers in Game 4. It is not the model of efficiency, but in the playoffs, you cannot always get worked up about that. Through four games of this series, the Celtics and Raptors are scoring at a rate of 104.6 and 101 points per 100 possessions, respectively. For the season, those offensive ratings would have ranked 29th and last in the league, respectively. This series is not about style points. Nothing is coming easily.
That does not excuse all of Siakam’s poor decisions. He should not be taking 3s as if he is a 40 percent shooter from deep because he’s not. There is a balance between taking what the defence gives you and making the defence deal with the best of you. Siakam is still figuring that out, as is to be expected. Nurse has to figure out how to get him some more advantageous looks, too.
Indeed, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster watching Siakam go to work in this series. Given everything else he is giving the Raptors, it is probably best to just enjoy the ride.
The Raptors have made it a series but they still don’t feel like they’re playing at their peak level. But they can take comfort in knowing they’ve got at least two more chances to find it after being half a second away from almost certain elimination.
They’re not at their best – and the Celtics likely have a lot to do with it as they held Toronto to 39 per cent from the floor — but they are comfortable with that. Coming out of Game 4, they can feel good that they didn’t squander good fortune from Game 3 and they can still work towards their ultimate reward, even if it requires some heavy, uphill slogging against a quality team.
“I think we know who we are, I think we know how we want to play,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s just a matter of keep battling and I think we’re just OK being uncomfortable and not being pretty.
“I think we can win in many different ways and I think that we’re very versatile and just trying to keep continuing to find ways to win,” he said. “It’s not always going to be pretty but I think we’re comfortable with how ugly and mucky the game is now. Now we would like it not to be that way but you’ve got to take what you get and that’s a great team that we’re going up against and we’ll take any wins that we can get, take any success that we can get.”
Rebounding is important, but the most critical thing you can do defensively is force your opponent to miss shots. The Raptors do that both near and far from the basket. Not only did they rank second in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (59.3%) in the regular season, but they ranked first in opponent 3-point percentage (33.7%).
The Celtics probably won’t shoot 20% from beyond the arc like they did in Game 4 again, but they might not shoot 44% like they did in Game 1 again either. And even when the Celtics made 10 corner 3s in Game 1, they scored a well-below-average 106 points per 100 possessions (112 on 106). This series is the first time the Celtics have been held under 110 points per 100 possessions in four straight games since a 2-3 road trip in mid-November.
“That’s our foundation,” VanVleet said, “being able to get stops. As long as we continue to do that at a high level, we give ourselves a chance to win, and we got to keep meeting the challenge. It’s a really, really hard team to guard but I think we are doing a great job trying to meet the challenge.”
The Raptors’ own offense has had its issues. Toronto ranks seventh offensively out of eight teams in this round. But they’re certainly able to win ugly, so consistently good defensively that they’re now 45-3 (5-0 in the playoffs) when they’ve scored at least 105 points per 100 possessions.
“I think we know who we are,” VanVleet said Saturday. “I think we’re just being OK being uncomfortable and not being pretty. I think we can win in many different ways and I think that we’re very versatile and just trying to keep continuing to find ways to win.
“It’s not always going to be pretty but I think we’re comfortable with how ugly and mucky the game is now. Now we would like it not to be that way but you’ve got to take what you get and that’s a great team that we’re going up against, and we’ll take any wins that we can get, take any success that we can get. So we put up 100 and we were able to hold them to 93 and that’s the name of the game at this point in the year.”
In the first, Lowry scored 11 of the first 17 points for the Raptors as he picked up where he left off attacking the paint. The offense overall was smart and patient for Toronto, who moved the ball and hunted mismatches in the pick and roll. Much of that was Lowry finding the weak spots, but VanVleet and OG made back-to-back threes under duress to give the Raptors a 23-18 lead. As a team, Toronto started 5-for-10 from distance.
The shooting would cool in the second. With more offense going through Siakam, his struggles from outside became more pronounced, as he missed two open ones during a Boston run early in the frame. He was offset, though, by Brown — who started 1-for-8 and also couldn’t buy one all night. The two teams would go into halftime tied at 49.
In the third, Anunoby and Lowry made big threes early in the quarter to give the Raptors the lead. As the bench started to trickle onto the floor, offensive rebounding became a key strength for Toronto, as both Ibaka and OG got great position for putbacks against Robert Williams. At one point, the differential on the offensive glass was 7-1 in favour of the Raptors. Easy baskets allowed Toronto to lead by as many as 11.
In the fourth, Lowry closed the door on the Celtics after some stagnant offense to start. Again, the Raptors briefly looked stuck in the mud. By causing mayhem on the other end, though, the Celtics were never able to mount an extended run. A quiet 20-19 quarter saw the Raptors do just enough to keep their lead up and secure the win.
Now, as the series will go at least six games, we look forward to Game 5 on Monday night.
OG Anunoby’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer may have done more than just give Toronto a Game 3 victory. It swung the momentum Boston seized en route to a 2-0 series victory squarely into the corner of the defending champs, who rode it to a Game 4 win, 100-93.
Despite shooting just 39.5 percent from the field, the Raptors were a plus-10 in the 3-point department as Boston connected on just 7 of its 35 attempts. The Celtics Big Three of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker combined for just 4-of-23 shooting from beyond the arc.
Tatum led Boston in scoring with 24, but Brown and Walker combined for just 29, including a 2-of-11 outside shooting night for the former.
Five Raptors scored in double figures, led by Pascal Siakam’s 23. Kyle Lowry followed close behind with 22 in 44 minutes, the third straight game with 40-plus minutes for the 34-year-old.
Boston led sparingly in this one towards the end of the first half and for bits early in the third quarter before Toronto eventually built a 32-24 edge in the frame.
The Celtics had their chances late, but turnovers, particularly Tatum’s offensive foul with under a minute remaining down five, sealed their fate.
In what is now a best-of-three series with Game 5 set for Monday night, Boston has to figure out how to gain back what the Raptors have snatched out from under them.
It became clear that Ibaka and Siakam were going to kill Boston at the rim if the Celtics didn’t get big and stick to their matchups, so Stevens brought Theis back in for Williams. The Celtics were now going to change their scheme from switch and stick to switch and kickout. This meant that instead of just switching screens and staying with your new assignment, Walker, specifically, was going to switch screens and then a nearby teammate would tag team in for him onto the big man and he would sprint out to the weak side to find another guard to cover. The Celtics have used the scram switch frequently against bigs, where they would do this during the entry pass to the big. But Boston was using a kickout switch to just do this preemptively.
Smart truly showed his versatility on these plays, picking up Siakam and once again shutting him down. But watch how Boston used a delayed double-team akin to its scheme against Joel Embiid from a few weeks ago, before the Celtics did not corral the loose rebound. This happened several times in the final minutes, perhaps the big separator in the end when they were keeping it a two-possession game. That should have been a stop, but instead, Toronto used a rare double pindown screen on the inbounder to stall Tatum in his chase of Lowry to get its star guard an open 3. Boston could have made it a one-possession game if it had grabbed the rebound. Now it was an eight-point game with less than five minutes left.
Boston finally went to a traditional deep-drop scheme to close out the game, which worked to run Toronto’s guards off the line. But when Marc Gasol hit a short jumper on the roll, that was it. When Theis picked up Lowry on a giant looping high-speed handoff and Lowry caught him reaching to draw a foul, it was completely over. The Celtics had to start pressing full court, and a Tatum push-off offensive foul in transition sealed their fate.
Stevens came up with answers to every problem the Raptors’ tremendous guards presented. But with the Celtics apparently incapable of hitting a 3, they could not take advantage when things were working to build a run that could actually bring back their lead from the early third quarter.
This might not be the match of the 21st century, but these are two of the league’s shrewdest tacticians and improvisers bringing out their most creative moves. Now tied up with no home-court advantage, we finally get to see them on completely even footing.
There will be no draw. There won’t be a resignation. Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens will keep trying to outfox each other until the very end, no matter how long it takes.
That’s the simple way to look at the Celtics’ shooting struggles in Game 4: They just need to make more of the open ones. By the end of his team’s 100-93 loss, which evened the series at 2-2, Brown actually had – statistically speaking – the best outside shooting night of anyone in the Celtics starting lineup. At 2 for 11, he was the only Boston player to make more than one 3-pointer. The Celtics finished an ugly 7 for 35 (20 percent) from beyond the 3-point line – their worst percentage of the entire season. Only once did they make fewer 3-pointers during the regular season – that was on Jan. 3, two months before the NBA hiatus. Based on history, they should never shoot so poorly again.
Brown shouldn’t have many nights like that, either. He’s a much-improved shooter. He hit 48.4 percent of his corner 3-point attempts this season. If the Raptors let him fire another six times from that distance, like they did in Game 4, he should make more than one. Brown and the rest of the Celtics just could not find the mark Saturday. He misfired on a wide-open corner 3-pointer two minutes into the first quarter. Then another one a couple of minutes later. By halftime, he had added another pair of bricks from the same spot. They were all good looks.
At that point, Brad Stevens actually felt encouraged. The Celtics had yet to start making shots. They had survived a Toronto 3-point barrage. And they were tied, 49-49. The second-half run he expected just never materialized.
“When you miss, as we know, it can kinda cascade on you,” Stevens said. “And that’s what happened tonight.”
That Stevens quote kicks off the more complicated part of the shooting conversation. It involves an exploration of many factors, including some that can’t be quantified. This has become a grueling series, both physically and mentally. The Celtics’ best players are logging a ton of minutes, just like the Raptors best players are. Fatigue could become a factor. It might be one already. The Raptors fly around. They use junk defenses effectively. They aggressively load up on Boston’s go-to guys and shade off of the Celtics’ lesser scorers. The injured Gordon Hayward’s absence is always felt, but it was more glaring than ever during the second half. Down six points in the third quarter, the Celtics used a lineup with Brad Wanamaker, Grant Williams and Robert Williams. Over just two minutes, that lineup – which also featured Brown and Walker – was outscored by five points.
It’s not just the bench lineups, though. The first unit has scored an abysmal 86.4 points per 100 possessions over the past two games, and has been outscored by 11 points over 35 minutes.
Toronto rotates and helps as well as any team. Scoring against a defense like that takes regular effort and impressive decision-making. It requires looking for the right play even after a different right play wasn’t rewarded. In such a competitive series, winning will take approaching the game maturely regardless of whether shots go in. Stevens didn’t think the Celtics did that in Game 4.
The first issue was simply an anomaly. The C’s shot just 20 percent (7-of-35) from 3-point range, marking their lowest efficiency from beyond the arc since Game 5 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal against Milwaukee. Toronto, meanwhile, had its best 3-point shooting game of the series, as it knocked down 38.6 percent (17-of-44) of its shots from distance.
Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker all shot 1-of-6 from deep, while Jaylen Brown, the most efficient starter from long range, shot 2-of-11. On any given night, you might see one of those players struggle from deep, two tops. But to have all four of them struggle? That’s just some bad luck.
“Honestly man, I thought we had great looks,” said Walker, who finished with 15 points and a game-high eight assists. “I thought we had great looks throughout the whole game. We just really missed. We missed a lot of open ones that we know we can make.”
As for the massive differential in second-chance points, that’s more of an effort issue. Also, easily correctable.
“We just turned out heads and didn’t block out,” said C’s coach Brad Stevens. “We just have to be more alert to that. We have to do a better job of slashing, cutting, exchanging on the weak side on pick-and-rolls. We have to communicate, find bodies. Do all that. But credit them for going and getting all those extra points. Those matter in a series like this.”
The most encouraging part about Game 4 was that despite Boston’s two glaring issues, it still came within striking distance of a win. A team that shoots 20 percent from three while also getting doubled up in second-chance points shouldn’t have any business being in a close game, yet the C’s hung right with Toronto until the end.
The second-best defensive rated team in the NBA showed up against Boston Saturday, holding the recently hot from downtown Celtics (shooting 39 percent from deep this series) to just 20 percent on the night and forced 14 turnovers. Unfortunately for Beantown, like the highly ranked defensive rated team showed up, so too — finally — did the fifth-best 3-point shooting team, as they managed to convert on 37 percent of their deep attempts.
Leading the way for the Boston Celtics was Jayson Tatum, who dropped 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds, and three assists on 56 percent shooting from the field. After an underwhelming 28 percent shooting performance in game-three, his game-four efficiency was quite a nice follow-up.
Unfortunately, it was not enough to pick up the slack for the rest of his teammates.
Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown did wind up dropping 15 and 14 points, respectively, but went a combined 3-17 from beyond the arc.
For the Raptors, All-Stars Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry had themselves a field day, scoring 23 and 22 points, respectively, while each notched 11 rebounds and nine combined assists.
Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet were next in line in the scoring department, dropping 18 and 17 respectively on a combined 60 percent shooting from downtown.
Only finding themselves leading once in the game, and never having it go above three points, it was evident that Boston couldn’t find their rhythm offensively while proving incapable of so much as stopping a nosebleed on the opposite end of the floor.
In game-five, adjustments certainly have to be made if Boston wishes to retake the lead in this now super-competitive series against the defending world champions.
“We weren’t very crisp all night,” Brad Stevens said. “Once we missed a few, we started trying to hit home runs.”
Home run swings are the epitome of working hard without working hard enough. Each individual wanted to do something big, but they didn’t want to do the real hard work of cutting, passing, and moving without the ball to create the best chance at scoring. Guys wanted to get rebounds, but they weren’t willing to do what it took to keep the Raptors off the boards.
“We just turned our heads and didn’t block out,” Stevens said. “We just have to be more alert to that. We have to do a better job of slashing, cutting, exchanging on the weak side on pick-and-rolls. We have to communicate, find bodies. Do all that.”
That’s the real work. That’s the work Toronto did when it mattered. That’s the difference between working hard, and working as hard a champion does. There’s a difference between making a pass, and making a play, like Fred VanVleet did in these sequences.
If there’s any solace, it’s that Boston was mostly bad and Toronto had to fight, claw, and shoot the lights out to win by seven and not feel comfortable doing it.
“Toronto hasn’t done nothing that they haven’t been doing,” Jaylen Brown said. They’re a good team, give them credit. But a lot of it was self-inflicted on us. Just making the right play, making it easy. Ain’t really no pressure. Just come out and play basketball, have fun and do our jobs every single time, keep our will strong and everything will work itself out. So that’s it. I tip my hat to Toronto. They came out and played a good game. They’re going to have to come out and play a good game again.”
Toronto’s defence is still their prerequisite as a championship contender. But their ceiling is really about how well they can score. They got enough from Lowry and Serge Ibaka and VanVleet on Saturday in the fourth quarter. They scraped together enough after a big third, in which Siakam scored nine of his 23, and showed flashes of the bullying presence he can be. And he did do other things.
“I think sometimes you can get caught up in makes and misses,” Siakam said. “It’s the league. It’s basketball.”
This Raptors team wasn’t built around Siakam, precisely, because a team with five 15-point scorers is by definition versatile when it comes to scoring. They will make shots, eventually, if they step into them like they mean it.
“I think we’re working out way back to who we know we can be,” said VanVleet, who scored 17 on 19 shots, plus six rebounds and six assists.
But the reason Siakam was given the lead role is that while Lowry or VanVleet can provide a 30-point night, nobody scores more easily than Siakam. His length, his lightning first step, his ability to finish with either hand, the development of a jump shot out to three-point range — being a star means you can make it look easy, and then do it again. Siakam learns fast. This whole season was about finding out how fast.
But Siakam has struggled in the bubble, and everyone is tired of hearing about it, and they’ll keep hearing it until he finds himself. Siakam had produced 15.3 points on 36 per cent shooting in the first three games of this series. A few shots bounced in and out, and this could have been an explosion. Siakam was asked what he liked in this one.
“I just think just being confident,” he said. “Having that confidence, and taking whatever they give you. That’s my biggest lesson from the game.” He was asked if the bubble trouble had messed with that confidence.
The Raptors were 0.5 seconds away from staring at an 0-3 deficit in their series against the Celtics but they have fought their way back to tie it. Is Boston now filled with regret for allowing Toronto an opportunity to get back in the series? TSN Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg has more on the opposing mindsets of both teams as the Raptors seem to have seized the momentum.
Finally, playing a game in the series that made their coach happy.
Nick Nurse understands what it takes for his team to be successful. The Raptors coach knows that it starts with defence and the change of schemes and the confusion of the opponent and mismatches all that seemed to work in the Raptors favour on Basketball Night In Canada. The Raptors led by eight at the end of three quarters. And unlike the usual fourth-quarter flow of an NBA game, Boston never got a whole lot closer than that through the final 12 minutes.
And now a series that was heading in one direction is tied, yet tilted in the other direction in favour of Toronto. It’s a best-of-three now. The first four games don’t matter much now. The Raptors flexed their muscles Saturday night, showed their brains, took care of the details they needed to take care of and the series may be tied only in score.
One moment in time the Raptors season looked ready to expire. Now, there will be a Labour Day Monday night game and a Wednesday night and maybe a seventh game on Friday night.
All of this happening so fast and frenetically and the series suddenly shifting Toronto’s way.
And no time to celebrate. Take the win. Understand the importance. And move on. The professional way. The Raptors way. Control, confidence and pace counts for so much. Toronto barely trailed in the game and never looked like it wouldn’t win.
Kyle Lowry walked off the court at the end, looking angry, beaten up, looking as though the Raptors had lost, slamming his hands together in what was anything but celebratory. What it turned out to be wasn’t anger but exhaustion.
With new life and some momentum – if you believe momentum exists in the playoffs – going into Saturday’s Game 4, Nurse and the Raptors didn’t let up. They put together their most complete effort of the second round – aided by some positive three-point shooting regression – and evened the series up with Boston at two games apiece. Once more, they leaned on their best players to do the heavy lifting.
and each played roughly 45 minutes. Meanwhile Lowry logged 44, and was sensational again.
The veteran point guard finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks – an impressive stat line, but one that doesn’t even tell the full story. As usual, Lowry threw his body around all night, drawing a couple painful looking charges and then diving out of bounds to try and secure a loose ball late in the game. In the process, Lowry appeared to throw the ball off of , which was the initial call. Although it would get overturned, the video review – triggered by a Brad Stevens coach’s challenge – actually bought him a few minutes of rest at a crucial point in the game.
“I did check with [Lowry],” Nurse said, following Toronto’s 100-93 win. “A couple times I was just joking. I asked him if he needed a sub with a smile and he chewed me out, like ‘No, I don’t need one’ and I was like, “I know, I was kinda kidding’. But we do check and ask them and tell them we’ve got some timeouts if they need a rest. You probably saw us take one with 3:50 to go there. We had one to burn, it felt like it was just a rest timeout. And I thought we got a really, really big boost with the challenge. That was a big, big point – we were playing, it was frantic, so that was another big resting point for our guys.”
“I think our guys are used to playing, I mean not this many minutes, but they’re used to playing heavy minutes and they’re certainly used to playing in this intensity in playoff games. So, they’re OK.”
Throughout the regular season, the depth of the Raptors’ bench proved to be a pleasant surprise. Just about everybody on the roster stepped up at one point or another and helped the team overcome a constant barrage of injuries to its top-seven players.
However, that’s what depth is for – to get you here, to help put you in this position. You spend all season preparing for this moment – managing the minutes of your best players, which the Raptors were able to do as a by-product of all the injuries, and the Bucks did by blowing teams out. Now, this is when your stars are supposed to shine brightest and carry you further.
“I mean, if you’re ever going to do it now’s the time to do it,” said VanVleet, who scored 17 points on Saturday. “There’s nothing to be resting for, there’s no tomorrow. Coach is putting his trust in us and communicating to a level where if you need a rest you get one, if you need him to call a timeout you get one. But right now, I think he’s rolling with the big guns and that’s the way that we like it.”
It was as if history repeated itself off a big win in their championship run last season.
“We hit a big shot to beat Philly in Game 7 last year and we had to get on a plane the next day and go to Milwaukee,” Nurse said before Saturday’s game. “I was really, really worried that we were going to be really flat in Game 1. And we didn’t (come out flat), we played amazing in Game 1. We were really, really, really — at least two reallys — unlucky not to win that first game in Milwaukee. I mean, we really outplayed ’em.
“So we came off that jubilation and really momentous series clincher pretty good. So I’m hoping we can do the same. (Game 3) seemed like a really good win to me, it didn’t seem like a whole superhuge different type of win, really, to me, and I think most of the guys, at this stage, (thought) we had to win.”
The Raptors tried to prove their coach wrong with a blistering start — Kyle Lowry had 11 points in the first five minutes as he tried to put an immediate stamp on the game. But it was not sustainable. And the Raptors needed to have consistent resolve, to make adjustments as the game went on, to stay calm in the face of Celtics runs and not get going too fast when things were going well for them.
They did all those things.
Lowry finished with a near triple-double — 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists — and every time the Celtics made a run, the Raptors held them off.
“It’s the first to four (wins),” Lowry said. “We understand it’s ride the wave, there’s gonna be some ups, some downs. Just stay with it.”
The argument is not that Terence Davis, or Norman Powell, or Chris Boucher, or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Matt Thomas are better than the Raptors starters. The argument is that they can provide things the Raptors need in this series.
Powell, in particular, is someone Nurse should find a longer leash for. Aside from the Playoff Norm moments, Powell has become a legitimate offensive weapon. While he’s scuffled somewhat in the series, he’s given Nurse a season-long resume that shows he’s better than this. Powell’s shooting, and ability to pressure the rim are two things the Raptors are in desperate need of in this series and 12-minute cameos aren’t enough to effectively unlock it. To a lesser extent, Davis can bring some of those things as well. In a series where Toronto is posting an offensive rating five points lower than the Golden State Warriors, the worst offensive team in the league this season, it’s worth trying.
Of course, all of the players Nurse is staying away from have significant flaws, but they all have proven they can succeed in set roles. And because of the Raptors’ injuries over the past year, they’ve all had chances to do so in high-stake moments against good to great opposition.
Yes, the playoffs can be different, but how do we know for sure that Hollis-Jefferson’s lack of shooting can’t be balanced in short bursts by his defense, intelligent cutting and mean-spirited attacks at the rim. Kanter excepted, Boston doesn’t have the size to play Boucher off the floor — and Boucher’s length and bounce could help deter Boston’s drives. Thomas showed in his Game 3 cameo that while Boston will seek to attack him, he’s active, and intelligent enough that it’s not an automatic bucket. And on the other end, the Celtics are paying him a lot of attention, opening badly-needed creases in their D.
There’s also the diminishing returns that come from playing your best players heavy minutes. The Raps survived Game 3 more than they won it — they were clearly running on fumes, and if Anunoby’s shot had somehow been a two, it seems hard to believe they had another five minutes of high-intensity basketball in them.
Davis provided the majority of his damage in the first round against the Brooklyn Nets but has remained effective in the second round, too. Davis is shooting 67% from the field in the playoffs, including 50% (8-of-16) from 3-point range.
According to Synergy Sports, Davis ranks among the leaders in offensive efficiency. Davis is scoring 1.37 points per possession, which ranked second among qualified players as of Aug. 31. Since then, his average dropped slightly, down to 1.28 points, but still ranks in the 96th percentile among postseason players.
The efficient performance in the playoffs has been no fluke, either. Behind his solid play off of the bench this season, Davis managed to carve out a large role in head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation, posting 7.5 points per game in 72 appearances. He averaged 1.017 points per possession in the regular season, which ranked in the 68th percentile among all players.
The Raptors have consistently proven to have one of the best development programs in the NBA and Davis is another example of a tremendous addition through the draft. Davis appears to be poised for a long and productive career in the NBA as a result.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is not the No. 1 free agent in next year’s basketball market. Masai Ujiri is.
While rumblings of late around Toronto have Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors coming to terms on an extension that will keep the team president with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for years — I have heard that several times of late — sources insist there is no deal and serious negotiations have yet to take place on one.
The linking of Antetokoumpo and Ujiri has been going on around the NBA for years and the story becomes more intriguing now as the Milwaukee Bucks are about to go out early to the Miami Heat. The defeat will crush Giannis, about to become the two-time MVP, who has one year left on his contact with the Bucks.
Ujiri has his own situation to deal with: His deal is up in a year, free agents Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are up when this season ends. And the seemingly ageless Kyle Lowry has just one year left as well, and he’ll turn 35 next season.
MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum has insisted, whenever asked, that Ujiri isn’t going anywhere and that “he’s like a son to me.” But still no deal has been done, which seems odd considering that Brendan Shanahan signed a six-year extension with the Maple Leafs a year ago.
The one question never answered in all this: Is basketball where Ujiri sees himself in the future? Or is there something larger than sport on his mind?
The more the Bucks stumble, the more Antetokounmpo must wonder, the more available he likely becomes. Maybe for Ujiri? If he’s still the president by then.
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