Raptors fall to Celtics as reality of log-jammed Eastern Conference setting in

Jayson Tatum and Dennis Schroder combine for 42 points as the Celtics defeated the Raptors 104-88.

The fight is on.

After a charming five-game winning streak, the Toronto Raptors have lost three straight. After blowing out the Boston Celtics three weeks ago, the Raptors weren’t up for a repeat.

The Eastern Conference is deep and the Raptors' path to the promised land of a top-six spot and thus avoiding the play-in tournament is going to be fraught. Even finishing in the 7-10 range isn’t a given.

It’s not news — it would be if it was otherwise. But after a slow start and a promising surge and now a road-heavy schedule approaching, reality is setting in.

The Raptors fell to 6-6 after dropping a 104-88 rock fight to the Celtics, who were eager to avenge the surprising 32-point blowout the Raptors put on them in October.

The Celtics (5-6) are finding their game after an awful start and all that means is they’re joining an already log-jammed Eastern Conference playoff picture.

“It’s funny, I was just talking to Bobby Webster, our GM, on the way over and I said, ‘Man, the league is competitive this year,’" Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. "Just watching games on a night-to-night basis, teams are really playing hard and I think there is a lot going on.

"He kind of started a conversation about the East. I won’t repeat it exactly but this will give you a sense. He started going through the teams, listed a whole bunch of them, and he forgot like four. That’s kind of what you do: Brooklyn and Milwaukee, and then you forget four teams that are pretty good. It’s really deep, super competitive. The games each night are really good."

Against Boston, the Raptors' effort was fine, but their execution never quite rose to the required level. They trailed all game and by 12 heading into the fourth quarter and could never get over the hump. They pulled within eight with seven minutes to play but never closer. Their five fourth-quarter turnovers all seemed to come just when the Raptors were gathering some form of momentum, which was a problem.

“It just takes the momentum, it takes the energy [away],” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. “You know we're trying, we're playing hard, but sometimes it doesn't go your way, so there's like the normal turnovers that'll happen, and there's the unforced turnovers, and I just thought we didn't have a great rhythm offensively or defensively all night.

"We've got to find ways to create it when it's not there and then usually we can do that on the defensive end, but every stop we got it felt like they got an offensive rebound, when we got a breakout in transition, sometimes the ball just ended up out of bounds, or missed a layup ... it was one of those nights.”

On the night the Celtics stole liberally from the Raptors preferred formula: They gathered 12 offensive rebounds — eight by Robert Williams III — to six for Toronto while the Raptors turned it over 18 times to 15 for Boston, the latter a low number for the Raptors, who lead the NBA in opponent turnovers.

Scottie Barnes finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, one of the few bright spots as Toronto shot 42.9 per cent from the floor and just 6-of-24 from deep, off-setting a decent defensive effort as they held Boston to 44.7 per cent.

Overall, the Raptors are still trying to find their bearings with Pascal Siakam working himself back into the lineup after off-season shoulder surgery. Siakam remains on a minutes restriction — he played 30 minutes and may be held out of Thursday’s back-to-back in Philadelphia. He contributed defensively, giving the Raptors one more switchable defender while his two steals hinted at his activity on defence, offensively he was clearly out of sync with four turnovers through three quarters, having a hard time simply finding shots and spots on the floor. He finished with eight points on seven shots.

Patience will be required.

“I was just was trying to reassure him and keep telling him: just keep going 'till you figure it out. He's finding himself, finding his legs,” said VanVleet. “It's a different lineup, you know, without a big out there most of the time and the spacing is a little different. ... I think it's gonna take some time, obviously, and we would all like for it to be tonight or yesterday or whatever. But, you know, that's not how those things work. So we just got to stay together and keep working.”

Before the game Nurse was expecting the Celtics would be looking to respond after the Raptors tore them to pieces on the Celtics home opener, which simultaneously suggested Toronto might have a little more upside than pre-season projections would indicate and revealed some cracks in the Celtics foundation.

Boston ended up starting the season 2-5 and had to resort to a players-only meeting to gain their bearings. They responded with blowout wins over Orlando and Miami.

“I would expect this to be a little bit of a street brawl tonight, I really would. They’re gonna come with some physicality,” Nurse said.

The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown, their leading scorer so far, but scanning through their key players — Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford — all came into the game shooting well below their career averages. As a team, the Celtics were shooting just 33.2 per cent from three, 20th in the league.

That can’t last all season and the Celtics were able to find their rhythm in the early going. They shot 5-of-9 from three in the first quarter as Boston jumped out to a 33-25 lead. Toronto going 6-of-14 in the paint – an area of concern all season – also worked in the Celtics' favour.

But that was hardly the most important statistical advantage Boston staked out. In their first meeting of the season, Toronto had a 21-10 advantage on the offensive glass and a 25-11 edge in turnovers. The result was a massive 100-82 edge in field goals attempted.

The Celtics weren’t going to let that happen a second time on their home floor. The Celtics opened up an 18-point lead and went into the half with a 62-46 edge thanks in part to a 9-4 edge in offensive rebounding and a 6-5 edge in turnovers and a 54-44 advantage in shot attempts.

The Raptors were missing Khem Birch for the second straight game due to a swollen knee and his absence was felt. He’s not a "true" big but his combination of size, quickness and hoops IQ gives allows him to figure things out most nights.

But without Birch there weren’t any lineup configurations Nurse tried that provided an answer for the blunt force that is Celtics big man Williams, who was 7-of-8 from the floor in the first half and gathered seven offensive rebounds on his own.

The Raptors only counter was rookie Barnes, who had 13 points and six rebounds at half. Take away his numbers and Toronto shot just 37 per cent from the floor and going 3-of-14 from deep didn’t help.

The Raptors showed some fight in the third quarter as they were able to turn the Celtics over with four early steals that gave them a chance to get out in transition. A jumper from Gary Trent Jr. cut Boston’s lead to 11 midway through the quarter and a VanVleet triple trimmed it to nine with 3:44 to play in the quarter. But the Celtics held their ground, taking an 80-68 edge to start the fourth.

The Raptors couldn’t reel them in from there, and their challenge in the East will be holding their ground against a deep field, Boston just one of many.

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