The Raptors had their chances to break the streak — by far the longest in the NBA — but couldn’t take advantage of a younger Celtics squad that was missing its star guard, Kyrie Irving, who sat out the game after suffering a facial fracture on Friday.
Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s nail-biter in Boston:
More fuel added in debate over crunch-time offence
During Thursday’s win at home versus New Orleans, the Raptors and Pelicans combined to score 240 points and launch 73 three-pointers — 42 of them courtesy Toronto — in a game that saw key elements of the Raps’ “new-look” offence on display. The Raptors passed with purpose and worked to find open shooters, but down the stretch of a close game made a point to give their go-to scorer an opportunity to help secure a win — which he did.
The team may have found itself in a decidedly different style of game against Boston, but its late-game approach, understandably, remained the same.
The Celtics have established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in the league and arguably their best defensive player, Al Horford, returned to the lineup after missing a pair of games due to the NBA’s concussion protocol.
With players like Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Smart in the starting lineup for Boston, the game turned out to be as physical and deliberate as expected. Toronto’s inability to get a stop down the stretch was made all the more damaging by the fact that the Celtics got three stops in the final four Raptors offensive possessions — all missed jump shots from DeMar DeRozan.
As Toronto continues to modernize its offence, it’s clear that when the moment is greatest the Raptors, like most teams, will lean on their star players to do what they do best. Over the past few seasons, that meant that either DeRozan or Kyle Lowry would have the ball with the game on the line. But Lowry has been playing below standard this season — he seems to manufacture most of his offence these days via deep, dramatic three-pointers, although his five trips to the free-throw line on Sunday were encouraging — and so those late-game offensive duties have rested on DeRozan. And, by the way, they should.
On Sunday it didn’t work to the Raptors’ favour. During a strange and often frantic final minute, the Raptors turned to DeRozan twice to help take the lead. With his team down one point, DeRozan received the ball on the right side and missed a one-on-one pull-up jumper over the outstretched hand of Horford.
The Raptors were gifted an opportunity when Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum was called for an offensive foul when he elbowed Fred VanVleet clean in the face after grabbing the rebound, giving Toronto possession with 13 seconds remaining.
Again the ball came to DeRozan, who came curling off a screen on the right side once more. Covered by second-year guard Jaylen Brown this time, he took the younger player just outside the free-throw line, momentarily lost his defender and spun for a turnaround jumper he’s hit a thousand times before. Not this time.
There’s sure to be debate around the water cooler (is that still a thing?) on Monday morning regarding how the Raptors and head coach Dwane Casey could or should approach those late-game situations. Did the Raps abandon their new offensive principles and revert to old habits of one-on-one, low-efficiency basketball? Or did they give themselves the best chance to win by letting their best player, who led his team in scoring with 24 points and hit several clutch shots as the game was winding down, do his thing?
There certainly doesn’t seem to be any debate among the team. “I thought it was a great look,” Casey told reporters after the game. “He shook him, he was wide open, he vaulted up. I’ll that look 999 times out of a thousand.”
“I make that in my sleep,” DeRozan said, calling the final shot a “great look.”
In the NBA, especially during end-of-game scenarios, you live and die by your stars and their ability to put the ball in the basket. No amount of tweaks — or, in the Raptors’ case, wholesale changes — to a team’s system are likely to change that.
This was a winnable game for the Raptors that should have never came down to one final possession. Credit to the Celtics, who have scrapped their way to the best record in the NBA at 12-2.
Powell injury further opens up door for Anunoby
Baynes is a giant human whose brute strength and willingness to invite contact has served him well in his first season with the Celtics. It’s also caused its fair share of injuries — and we’re not even one month into the season. Irving sat this game out after taking an errant forearm to the face from Baynes in Boston’s previous game versus Charlotte.
On Sunday, Norman Powell collided with Baynes during the first quarter and suffered what was later deemed a right hip pointer. He did not return to the game and was seen walking on crutches after the game.
The Raps’ depth has been perhaps their greatest asset this season, and if Powell is out then the team is obviously far worse off for it. In his absence, rookie OG Anunoby stepped up, playing 21 minutes — including in crunch time — and hit two clutch free throws. The coaching staff has shown more and more confidence in the first-year forward as of late and he’s going to remain on the floor as long as he continues to understand his role and what’s expected of him.
No word yet on whether or not he’ll miss games, but losing Powell hurts the team. Fortunately for it, Anunoby is leap years ahead of schedule in terms of both his health and development early in his rookie season.
The most important part of Boston’s 12-2 start to the season has been the play of a deep and talented young roster. Brown and 19 year-old Tatum — who helped sink the Raptors with a clutch layup — have both been stellar. Third-year point guard Terry Rozier had his moments, and it’s easy to forget that Smart, who started in place of the 25 year-old Irving, is just 23 years of age himself.
Boston is very good now, and has a developing core in place that should keep a target on its backs in the East for years to come.
While for the most part the Raptors’ young players haven’t had to take on as much responsibility as their Celtics counterparts, their play so far this season remains the team’s most pleasant surprise.
Apart from Anunoby, Sunday saw good outings from VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Lucas Nogueira, who put Thursday’s frustratingly short and foul-filled outing against the Pelicans in the rearview thanks to a strong game in which he blocked four shots and grabbed seven boards in 18 minutes of action.
Whether or not either of these teams reaches its ceiling will come down to how the likes of DeRozan, Lowry, Irving, Horford, and, whenever he returns, Gordon Hayward perform. But it’s the young players around them that could make this a matchup that have both fan bases simultaneously excited about both the present and future.