BOSTON — The Toronto Raptors had high hopes coming into TD Garden for a pivotal contest against the Boston Celtics. They wanted a win; they wanted to firmly establish control of the first seed in the Eastern Conference; they wanted to tie a franchise record doing it and they maybe wanted to prove that they could force the Celtics to play on their terms.
They failed in all respects.
But most concerning about their 110-99 loss to Boston is the latter. The Raptors came to Boston in position to put the first seed on ice – a win would have put them up four games with six to play and assured at least a split of their season series prior to Boston’s visit to Toronto on Wednesday.
They left having to wonder how a team coming off a West Coast road trip and missing three rotation players due to injury and illness – and that’s not counting Gordon Hayward, who broke his leg in the first game of the season – could so thoroughly dominate the terms of engagement.
It’s not just that the Raptors lost, it’s that they lost falling victim to exactly how the Celtics do their dirty work. Boston is the best defensive team in the NBA and they held the Raptors and their No. 3-ranked offence to under 100 points for just the second time in 28 games.
The Celtics defend the three-point line better than any team in the NBA and they held the Raptors to an awful 8-of-35 night from beyond the arc, which is even worse when you consider Toronto made four of their first six triples in the opening eight minutes of the game, meaning they were just four for their next 31.
The Raptors have had their best success late in games playing either three point guards, or at least two with Fred VanVleet carving out big chunks of fourth-quarter minutes late in the matchups.
But the Celtics took control of the game by playing a bigger lineup with Al Horford at centre, Marcus Morris at four, 6-foot-7 Jason Tatum at forward and 6-foot-7 Jalen Brown at guard. They even played Tatum at point guard for a stretch. In Casey’s view, there was no place on the floor for VanVleet – who played well in his 18 minutes – or Delon Wright, who played poorly in his 12.
The result was Norm Powell and OG Anunoby getting minutes down the stretch of a close, important game. Powell’s been in tight situations before, but rarely this season when everyone else is healthy. He’s seen fourth-quarter minutes in just 24 of the Raptors’ 76 games. Anunoby has been on the floor in the fourth for just 20 games and almost exclusively in garbage time. VanVleet, who leads the Raptors in fourth-quarter minutes, didn’t play at all.
The Celtics looked like the Celtics – a tough-minded defensive team that has figured out different ways to win all year long because they’ve had little choice. Recently they’ve turned to playing 2-3 zone which they used to great effect, particularly in the second half. The Raptors had no answer.
“There were things that got us out of our rhythm and flow,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. “They did a great job of adjusting and changing up their defensive coverages. … They did a good job in the zone. We’d run a play and it didn’t work. We had to figure it out. We just didn’t figure it out quick enough.”
The loss dropped Toronto to 55-21 and cut its lead over Boston (53-23) to two games. The Raptors shot 46 per cent from the floor but just 40 per cent after the first quarter and 33 per cent in the fourth quarter. DeMar DeRozan had 32 points and seven assists in a fine effort, but just four points in the fourth as Boston zoned up.
It doesn’t seem right to make too big a deal over one game. The Raptors were similarly hemmed in when they played the Celtics at TD Garden in November and went on to win 16 of their next 19 games. They also blew out Boston in Toronto with Kyrie Irving (out after undergoing knee surgery) in the lineup.
But it was not a loss without consequence. The Raptors go to Cleveland on Tuesday, which presents a challenge and then have a return date with Boston on Wednesday. Lose in Cleveland and lose at home to the Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back (although Boston will be in the same circumstance), and Toronto would suddenly be tied with the Celtics atop the East with Boston owning the tie-breaker.
“We’ve just got to go play, back to our house,” said Lowry who had 11 points and nine assists but was just 2-of-10 from three. “They won their game here on their home floor. They played a great game. They played the type of game they wanted to play. Slow it down, physical, made shots. We’ve got another game before that game. We’ve got to get better from this game for Wednesday.”
But regardless of how the race to the finish line ends, it’s games like the one Saturday that cast doubt over the Raptors prospects to roll through the post-season unscathed, or easily manage the Celtics in the Conference Final, should both teams make it there.
Early on the game was what the Raptors wanted – up-tempo and high-scoring. How it got there was a little surprising.
Often good defence is about making choices – taking away some things and living with others. It’s a balance of probabilities. If the Celtics ran their offence through Aron Baynes, the rugged Australian centre, the Raptors would have been fine with it.
Baynes shooting threes? Even better. He wasn’t a seasoned three-point marksman like, say, Jonas Valanciunas. Baynes was 1-of-19 from deep in 369 career games before Saturday. So of course he went 2-for-2 from deep in the game’s first six minutes on his way to a 12-point first quarter – pretty good production for a player averaging 5.7 points a game. And letting Baynes get his probably wasn’t a bad decision – he didn’t score the rest of the game.
But between Baynes’ early surge and the play of point guard Terry Rozier, who has thrived in the absence of Irving, the Celtics were largely able to stick with the Raptors’ early push which was driven by Serge Ibaka, who scored eight of his 15 in the first quarter, and Valanciunas, who scored six of his 13. Rozier had 10 points on five shots in the first, making both of his threes and getting to the rim too easily. But a VanVleet three at the buzzer allowed Toronto to lead 33-31 after 12 minutes, where the two teams combined to shoot 27-of-46 from the floor and 9-of-15 from deep.
That was the Raptors’ high point, though. The Celtics kept making adjustments that seemed to thwart Toronto’s strengths.
In the second quarter, the game slowed to a crawl – they sawed off the period 22-22 – but it was in part because Boston countered Toronto’s highly-acclaimed second unit by playing big, with Horford, Morris and Greg Monroe bullying the Raptors’ frontline of Jacob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and C.J. Miles.
Those three have been essential to so many game-changing runs by the bench this season, but on Saturday, they were non-existent – finishing with five points on 10 shots in 56 combined minutes.
“I thought they did a good job and we did not do a good job of guarding the post-ups, protecting the rim, all those things,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.
Again, it’s just one game. The Raptors were not undefeated when they arrived in Boston after all, and losing takes all forms. But as the playing field evens down the stretch and into the playoffs, it’s how Toronto manages games like Saturday’s – a tough opponent in a tough environment on the road – that will dictate its fortunes.
Resorting to playing the likes of Anunoby and Powell late in close games – situations they’ve never been in all season – could look bold but could also look desperate, depending on the outcome.
In the fourth quarter, it can only be concluded that the strategy didn’t work. The Raptors led 84-82 to start the final frame and were tied 94-94 with five minutes to play, but subsequently fell apart as Boston closed on a 10-0 run prompted by six Toronto turnovers and a blocked shot in the space of six possessions.
“The fourth quarter, the tempo definitely went their way,” said DeRozan. “They got us out of our comfort zone for sure.”
Was it the Celtics’ decision to go big and get the Raptors out of their typical late-game rotation?
“It’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” said Casey. “The thing about it we just have to understand what they are trying to do, where the help is coming from.”
Okay. Was it the Celtics decision to play zone?
“No, we were ready for it. We executed against it. We had some open looks against it. Kyle made one. The others just didn’t go down. We were ready for it. It was nothing we were surprised by. We got what we wanted out of it. We just got to make the shots.”
Making shots always helps and the Raptors won’t miss 27 threes again anytime soon. But teams like the Celtics will do whatever it takes to get the Raptors out of their comfort zone. The Raptors job is figure out how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and thrive regardless.