TORONTO — The Boston Celtics have been intermittently reeling since, oh, not long after tip-off during their first game of the regular season.
At times they’ve looked like the Eastern Conference contender they were meant to be, like when they rattled off wins in 10 of 11 shortly after the new year. And at others they’ve looked ineffective, dysfunctional, and a mess, as they did in dropping a game to the 16-44 Chicago Bulls on Saturday.
Just which Boston team is going to show up on any given night is anyone’s guess. But there’s no mistaking the team’s talent and depth, and there’s reason to believe that if they can put it all together at the right time, the Celtics can be the side Kyrie Irving described after that loss to the Bulls, when he said, “I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games.”
The Toronto Raptors host those Celtics Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena. And after putting his team through a long video session and practice Monday morning, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse had Irving’s comments on his mind.
“We know they’re very good, we know they’re very deep, we know they’re very well coached,” Nurse said. “You don’t know what’s going on with those guys physically and maybe even mentally that can change on the snap of a finger. As Kyrie said, ‘I don’t see anybody beating us in a seven-game series.’ I think they’re as dangerous as anybody here.”
And they already have two wins over the Raptors in three tries. Of course, today’s Raptors are different from the teams that lost those games, with Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin now playing substantial roles in Nurse’s rotations as Toronto gears up for what it intends to be a deep playoff run.
Integrating those two into Toronto’s schemes has been a significant task for Nurse since the trade deadline, and much of Monday’s film session was dedicated to identifying what’s gone right to this point, and what’s gone wrong. Sunday’s 15-point loss to the Orlando Magic provided plenty of evidence of the latter.
“There were maybe five situations in the film room today where we were going over stuff we weren’t sure we’ve quite gone over with those guys. Defensively, mostly,” Nurse said. “There’s so many little things that you’re doing when you’re switching, and this, and that, and you’re over, you’re picking up at this point, and you’re not picking up at this point. So, a lot of nuances there that we continue to teach them.
“I thought we had a good learning day. Not only for the short term but the long term. We did a lot, a lot of film today on a lot, a lot of topics. Some on last night, some tomorrow night, and some not related to last night or tomorrow night — relating to the long term.”
Take Lin, who’s been thrown into a variety of lineups over his three games in a Raptors uniform — 13 lineups in all — with some working better than others. He’s found quick chemistry with Gasol and Kyle Lowry, two fellow veterans who share his strong instincts for facilitating offence on the fly.
But when Lin’s been the primary creator in a unit, things haven’t gone quite as smoothly, like Sunday, when he was part of a rotation with Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Patrick McCaw, and newcomer Jodie Meeks, which struggled.
Monday morning, Nurse sat down with Lin to provide feedback on what’s worked and what hasn’t. His primary message was for Lin not to hesitate to take his shot, and not to feel like he should defer to his new teammates.
“I told him when he’s out there with Kyle, start acting like a two-guard — meaning catch-and-shoot, because you’re a good shooter. We need that, we need that production,” Nurse said. “And I said, when you come off the screens at the three-point line open, I need you to start pulling them.
“It’s a little bit like Delon [Wright]. Delon would come off there and we were begging him to shoot those for the longest time. It takes time. It’s in their nature a little bit.”
Nurse admitted Monday that he was close to starting Lin in the resting Kawhi Leonard’s place for Sunday’s game in an attempt to recreate the dual-guard lineup he often went to when Fred VanVleet was healthy. (“Just bad, bad subbing by me last night,” Nurse conceded.)
That will remain an option going forward if — more like, when — Leonard takes another night off, and makes sense on paper considering how small the Raptors were left on the bench with Anunoby starting in his place for Sunday’s game.
“The hardest part for me, I think, is trying to figure it out when Kawhi’s not there. There’s kind of another team, and another whole different rotation that’s going on — and then keeping that in mind for when Kawhi is back,” Nurse said. “I don’t see playing either one of those lineups tomorrow night, for instance, because he’s back, he fills a hole at the three-four and keeps some size on the floor, keeps OG on the bench and gets him to the size with the second unit.”
Soon, the with-or-without Leonard dance will be over. At least one presumes. The Raptors have some very grave problems if Leonard is forced to miss time during the playoffs. But there has been zero indication to this point that Leonard’s ‘load management’ will extend beyond the end of the regular season.
Watching Sunday’s loss — only the fourth time the Raptors have lost in 17 games without Leonard — from the bench, Leonard took note of how out-of-sorts the Raptors offence looked, and how a few timely Magic buckets, particularly from star centre Nikola Vucevic, put the game out of reach.
“Our offence was a little stagnant,” Leonard said. “Messed up on the defensive coverage a couple times. That was pretty much the ballgame.”
Asked if there will be games like that when a team’s assimilating new players like Gasol and Lin, Leonard shifted focus to the Raptors as a whole, and the team-wide improvements that need to be made between now and the playoffs.
“Just basically executing on offence, having the same energy every night. Really just execution and trying to limit mistakes,” he said. “Little mistakes, big mistakes — you know, just defensive assignments and execution. Execution consists of doing the right thing, knowing what you’re doing with a purpose.”
Boston will provide a good test of that execution Tuesday night. Who’s to say which Celtics team shows up. But the Raptors certainly know which version of themselves they want to show.