New-look Raptors win chess match against eerily similar Celtics

Kawhi Leonard dropped 31 points and recorded his 2nd straight double-double to lead the Raptors to a 113-101 win over the Boston Celtics Friday.

TORONTO — Did you ever see the movie Multiplicity? There’s a scene — well, several actually — where Michael Keaton, who clones himself several times in, sees a near-exact replica of himself and is stopped in his tracks.

If you’re in the under-30 crowd, the popular Spiderman meme might be a better example, I’m told. You know, the one with two Spiderman’s pointing at each other while we try to figure out which one is real and which is the imposter.

In any event, you (hopefully) get the point: The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are very similar. They’re similar in roster structure, in coaching innovation, in lineup usage and minute distribution, and in Finals aspirations. In their case, of course, neither is an imposter when it comes to their perch atop the division, and there is little doubt that both teams are deserving of ‘team to beat’ status in the East. Friday’s 113-101 victory for Toronto did nothing to change that.

There is so much depth for both the Raptors and Celtics, and so many lineup combinations, that you had to do a double-take to make sure you weren’t watching Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue.

The chess match started before the opening tip, when Serge Ibaka replaced Jonas Valanciunas in the Raptors’ starting lineup, Nick Nurse favouring the veteran in a matchup against Boston floor-stretching centre Al Horford. And it continued from there, as the Raptors brigade countered the Celtics’ potent bench.

Almost man for man, the teams could go to their bench and find an ideal player to match up with. Marcus Morris is on the floor? Call OG Anunoby’s number. Aron Baynes, Boston’s lumbering big man, is playing? Put Valanciunas on him. And so on.

Even within the starting lineups, there was so much interchangeability in terms of matchups and defensive assignments — but that ability to switch assignments tends to play into Toronto’s favour against Boston, which is something most other teams can’t claim.

“Defensively, it makes it easy because we have very similar lineups and there are so many like-sized guys,” says Danny Green, comparing the Raptors and Celtics. “We can switch down the line, they can switch down the line.”

Horford was more succinct: “They look like us,” he said after the game. “Faster, the new NBA look. It worked for them.”

With Pascal Siakam starting for the second consecutive game, that speed — and the Raps’ versatility — was on display early. On successive possessions he closed off Jaylen Brown’s drive attempt and chased Jayson Tatum through a screen to get a hand up as the burgeoning Celtics star attempted a fadeaway jumper that missed.

Despite a forgettable offensive performance in the first half, the Raptors hung with the Celts thanks in part to 15 points from Kawhi Leonard in the third quarter (he’d finish with a game-high 31). They also took control of the paint in the second half, outscoring Boston 30-14 down low over the final two quarters.

But, with the Raptors up 101-99 with 2:53 left in the fourth, it was a 10-0 run that sealed the win and left the team in such a good mood after the game.

“Sometimes you can feel it’s coming — I don’t know if it’s a sixth sense, but you can feel the momentum of the game changing,” says Green, who scored 14 points (including 4-7 from deep) on Friday and has been a part of countless strong close-outs during his eight years with the San Antonio Spurs.

Green mentions that the team didn’t particularly look good before that run, but were still able to make plays and hit shots when it counted most — something he says is a key ingredient to winning in the NBA. What’s more, that depth of talent that the Raptors will depend on all season was on display.

“Down the stretch we had some big ones,” Green says of the Raps’ clutch two-minute-warning. “Kyle [Lowry] had some big ones, Kawhi got to the free-throw line and attaked, Serge [Ibaka] had some big buckets. Everybody had a play, or a moment, in that win, which is great to see. Especially against a team like that.”

Fred VanVleet came off the bench to score 11 points, Anunoby was active in 21 minutes — although he eventually ditched the goggles he was wearing for precaution after being poked in the eye in Wednesday’s opener vs. Cleveland — “They were getting too foggy,” he explained to a team trainer after the game. Ibaka made the most of his start, erasing a forgettable debut on Wednesday to score 21 points on 10-14 shooting.

Five of Lowry’s 15 points on Friday came during that 10-0 run, including a dramatic three-pointer — but it wasn’t his most memorable three-pointer of the night. That honour goes to his first attempt of the evening, a heaving shot, well behind the line, with about 19 seconds still on the shot-clock.

“You mean the shot that was from half-court, damn-near?” Green says, “I was on the court for that one, and I was shocked. What the—? I have confidence in Kyle, so whatever shot he takes is fine, but I still went straight to that offensive glass. Sheesh. I didn’t think it had much of a chance.

“But he made it. I should have known better.”

Lowry is now 8-11 on three-pointers through two games this season.

After the final buzzer, the Celtics players made their way to the locker room somberly. Not dejected, mind you — it’s too early in the season for that, and still 80 more games until the games really matter for either club.

They entered the visiting locker room in the basement of Scotiabank Arena in single-file and didn’t speak, while behind them the voices of several members of the Raptors bounced off the concourse walls, celebrating a game they’ll be told to forget and put behind them as they head straight to catch a flight to Washington to face the Wizards on Saturday night.

Despite all the rust still being removed, and adjustments that will continue to be made in the weeks and months to come, you can’t blame the Raptors for feeling good.

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