TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors weren’t required to go undefeated heading into the playoffs nor were they expected to, but their quick 3-0 start once the NBA regular season picked back up again allowed for dreaming.
Alas. The Raptors are no longer perfect in the pandemic-era, as they dropped a 122-100 decision to the Boston Celtics — their first loss since they set up house in Orlando Fla., snapping a seven-game winning streak that began back on March 3 with a win over the Phoenix Suns.
Toronto started slowly and never picked up the pace, looking disinterested at times defensively and abysmal on offence as they shot just 33.8 per cent from floor through the first three quarters and failed to crack 40 points in the first half or 60 by the end of three quarters.
By that time the game was out of reach, with Toronto trailing 91-57 to start the fourth quarter and both coaches agreeing to play an extended garbage time period, something the Raptors have mostly only done this year as the winning team.
“It was hard to score, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “… I think we had 19 threes in the first half and I’m trying to think of which ones I wouldn’t have wanted us to take.
“There might have been one that we had to throw up or something, a shot clock deal. The rest of ‘em were pretty good and I think it hurt us that we didn’t knock any of them down. It got us a little discouraged.
“We were playing pretty good defence early, similar to the other night but we just couldn’t get any offence to energize us.
“Give them credit, they were moving, they were active, but you’ve got to step in and make some of those shots if you want to beat a good team.”
The good news for Toronto is what could have been a pivotal match-up, and looked like it would be when the schedule for the eight-game seeding schedule was released, got 2020’ed — as in, it didn’t go according to plan.
The year has been nothing if not unpredictable and by the time the Raptors and the Celtics finally connected to finish off their regular-season series, the game itself — despite its intrigue as a potential playoff preview — lacked a certain amount of urgency. Toronto had pushed their lead over Boston for the second seed to 4.5 games by being perfect in bubble play, compared to the Celtics’ 2-2 mark.
The result was the Raptors’ ‘magic number’ to clinch second overall being down to one — a single Celtics loss or Raptors win would get the job done. With four games left to play and an embarrassing loss to shake off, you have to expect the Raptors will wrap that up soon, perhaps on Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies.
With the edge off the Celtics match-up, there wasn’t all that much to be gleaned from the contest for future reference.
As an example, the Raptors have made a science this season of manipulating their defensive coverages to take stars off their game with great success. The likes of Anthony Davis, LeBron James, James Harden and Damian Lillard are among the list of elite scorers that the Raptors have held to 10 points — or more — below their season average.
And among them Tatum has emerged as a lethal threat, showing signs in his third season of becoming an MVP-level player as indicated by the 31 points a game he averaged in February, taking up the slack when Walker was struggling with a knee problem.
But with the playoffs looming there was little chance that the Raptors — or the Celtics for that matter — would show all their cards on a Friday night in Orlando.
“He’s got the shooting aspect, he can take you one-on-one and can sit you down and shoot the three over the top of you. He’s able to go to the rim, as well. And he mixes that up,” Nurse said admiringly of Tatum before the game. “… We’re gonna try to guard him hard. I don’t know if there’s anything other than that — at this point — we’ve got planned. We just hope we can try to contain him a little bit.”
That was one goal that the Raptors were able to accomplish as they held Tatum to 18 points on 14 shots, but that was one of the few encouraging stories to emerge from the box score and it’s probably being over-stated.
The Raptors never put the Celtics on their heels and neither Tatum nor anyone else wearing a Celtics uniform was ever tested.
The Raptors cut Boston’s 15-point halftime lead to 10 early in the third but Boston responded with a 21-7 run that pretty much ended the night.
And on the other end, the Raptors certainly didn’t test the Celtics. Fred VanVleet led the Raptors in scoring with 13 points but was 4-of-14 from the floor. The Raptors gave up 26 points on 18 turnovers.
“I thought we did a great job coming out there in the second half and making a little push, but we dug ourselves in a little hole defensively,” said Norman Powell. “… We didn’t play as well as we’d like to on that end, and it kind of went over to our offence by not making shots and you miss easy shots — layups or whatever it is, or you think you should’ve got a call — and they come down and they bury a three. And then you come back down and miss another shot that should’ve gone in or whatever, it went in and out, and then they come back down and they hit another three.
“So, you’ve just gotta find a way to weather that storm. I think we’ve done a great job of being here and all year long of doing that, but it’s kinda tough when you go 10-for-38 from three and really can’t find the hole.”
The proof was in the soup from the beginning.
It may have been a case of pre-playoff jitters or a couple of prize fighters feeling each other out before settling in for slugfest but wow, the first quarter was really bad — for both teams.
The Raptors were a little bit worse as they trailed 21-14 after shooting just 6-of-25 from the floor in the opening 12 minutes. They couldn’t get to the free throw line; were just 2-of-11 from three, which was problematic because otherwise they couldn’t make a shot. Throw in three turnovers and it had the profile of a game that could have been over before the second quarter started. Fortunately, the Celtics weren’t any sharper as they were 10-of-25 from the floor and most notably 1-of-12 from three.
It wasn’t the Raptors defence that was the problem as they limited Boston to a respectable total in the first half while holding them to 42 per cent shooting.
But offensively Toronto was out of sorts — their 37 first-half points marked a new season-low as they shot just 33.3 per cent from the floor and 3-of-18 from deep.
It’s been a while since the Raptors have walked off the floor with so little to be pleased about, but it was bound to happen. Better to lose the season series to the Celtics 1-3 than fall behind by that margin in a series that really matters when the playoffs finally roll around.