The Toronto Raptors (1-4) will play host to the Boston Celtics (4-3) tonight at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Forida. It will be the first meeting between the two teams since Boston won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final against Toronto in the Orlando Bubble.
This is a game the Raptors likely had circled on their schedules since the beginning of the season. Boston got the best of Toronto in the bubble, and Jason Tatum in particular killed them in Game 7. But Boston is playing on the second night of a back-to-back after edging out the Detroit Pistons on Sunday afternoon due to clutch shots from Tatum and Jaylen Brown, so the Raptors will have an opportunity to bring the energy to their home court as they chase their second win of the season.
In terms of the matchup against the Celtics, there are two key trends to watch out for.
The first is the Raptors’ aggressive defense, which will likely send double-teams and traps at Tatum (and maybe also Jaylen Brown) all game, forcing the Celtics’ role players to make shots and beat them. That’s what the Raptors have done to superstars all season, and it is likely to continue against a relatively thin Boston team. Unfortunately, the Raptors’ aggressive defense has failed them at key moments this season, and opposing teams’ role players have made the Raptors’ pay in every single game (except the Knicks… who are the Knicks). The Raptors will need to tighten up the screws defensively if they want that strategy to work against a well-coached Celtics team, meaning their rotations will need to be a half-step quicker, the communication has to be better, and THEY HAVE TO STOP FOULING. The Raptors are helping too aggressively instead of forcing their opponents to take tough shots.
The second trend to watch for is the frontcourt play. The Celtics have been starting a twin-towers frontcourt of Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson. Even if they opt not to do that against the Raptors, the Celtics have two legitimate centers who can eat up the offensive boards if the Raptors are not diligent about matching up and boxing out. The Raptors have been outrebounded all season, and while it has gotten better as of late, Theis and Thompson can wreak havoc on the boards if the Raptors are not careful. However, playing such a slow-footed frontcourt should give players like OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam room to attack the Celtics’ big men off the dribble, as neither is fast enough to stay in front of Siakam especially.
Speaking of Siakam… where do I start? I rewatched the Pelicans game from Saturday night and focused on Siakam’s play and there really isn’t much to learn from it. His shot wasn’t falling and he picked up some really soft fouls and before you knew it, he was out. Early on, he made some really nice unselfish plays to find Anunoby open in the corner (twice), but his feeds inside to Aaron Baynes, who he has zero chemistry with, were picked off (twice). He needs to be more aggressive when he is already in the paint in terms of going up strong and getting his shot off, but he is generally making the right basketball play, and his teammates are going to start hitting those open shots sooner or later.
Jack Armstrong — who we have not gotten enough of this season and who I miss dearly — often talks about “letting the game come to you.” I think that’s what Siakam needs to do. He has a ton of pressure on him to produce as a No. 1 option, but in his attempt to do so he is failing to do the things that got him to where he is in the first place. Defensively, he is so worried about helping his teammates that several times this year his own man has blown by him and gotten to the rim with ease. Offensively, his shot is eventually going to fall (as are his teammates’) and then we are probably going to look stupid for being so concerned, but for now Siakam needs to do a better job making quicker decisions with the ball. He needs to stop facing up and allowing the defense to hone in on him. Instead, he would be wise to attack the defense when they are on their heels, either with a shot, pass, or attack. He is most successful when playing fast and using his quick burst to his advantage.
In fact, the Raptors in general need to do a better job attacking in transition. They are scoring 22.6 points in transition per game compared to 27.8 last season (at roughly the same pace). Even worse, their fast-break efficiency has dipped dramatically, going from 1.15 points per possession (third in the league) last season to 0.97 this season, which is the worst in the league (I’m going to write more about this later this week). While Marc Gasol was a great outlet passer, the absence of Gasol and Serge Ibaka does not explain the teams’ dramatic dropoff in transition efficiency. They still have elite transition players such as Norman Powell, Siakam, Anunoby, Lowry, and Boucher. Maybe some of it the dropoff be explained by fatigue, as guys like Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam are playing a lot of minutes with big loads on both ends of the floor, but they just need to be smarter with their look-ahead passes and find more opportunities to run.
In terms of the Raptors’ rotation, the only rea thing I question is that Terence Davis II is still getting minutes in high-leverage situations. From a strict basketball perspective, he has played poorly on both ends of the floor. While his ability to get to the rim is theoretically really important to the Raptors, he has not shown the ability to do that at all this season, and his defensive IQ and positioning have always been poor.
Also, Boucher probably deserves more minutes than Baynes at this point. He is playing his tail off on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, the Celtics present a matchup problem for Boucher, so we’ll see how Nurse finds him minutes while still (hopefully) leaning on Siakam.
I’d really like to see Nurse experiment with guys like Malachi Flynn or Paul Watson off the bench, and I also think Matt Thomas should get another chance soon. I’m convinced that once Nurse figures out the Raptors’ rotation, things will look a lot better on the offensive end.