Raptors’ potent transition offence neutralized by Celtics in Game 1

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam moves past Boston Celtics' Kemba Walker. (Ashley Landis/AP)

TORONTO – Getting out and flying in transition — either off steals, blocks or rebounds — and scoring wide-open triples or easy layups and dunks has been a staple of the Toronto Raptors’ offence.

But in the opening game of their second-round series with the Boston Celtics, the Raptors’ wings got clipped and they were forced into a half-court game that saw them smothered, as the Celtics took Game 1 with a 112-94 dismantlement of the Raptors.

During the regular season, the Raptors were the best fast-breaking team in the NBA, averaging 18.8 fast-break points per game and scoring 19.5 points off opponent turnovers per game – good for second in the league.

This was a trend that continued in their first-round playoff series with the Brooklyn Nets as, coming into Sunday’s game with Boston, Toronto was leading the post-season with 18.5 fast-break points per game and scoring 17.5 points per game off opponent turnovers.

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On Sunday against the Celtics, the Raptors managed to create 23 turnovers, but they weren’t able to convert off those mistakes as much as they probably should have. The Raptors scored just 15 points off turnovers — largely because they weren’t able to get their key fast-break game going, only managing seven fast breaks for the game.

This ultimately spelled disaster for the Raptors because it meant they would have to rely on their half-court offence. According to CleaningTheGlass.com, they’ve been below average this season, averaging just 94.5 points per 100 plays, something that gets worse when you consider the Celtics are the fourth stingiest half-court defence, allowing only 91.6 points per 100 plays this season.

Without the ability to get easy fast-break buckets, the Raptors’ offence appeared handicapped on Sunday.

“They’re getting a lot of bodies back, really quickly and really well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the Celtics’ transition defence after Sunday’s game. “Even on turnovers, just change of possession, whether it’s a defensive rebound or a turnover, they’re getting a lot of bodies back.”

Before Game 1, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked how he would balance crashing the offensive glass and getting back in transition to try to limit Toronto’s fast-break opportunities. The Celtics were among the best offensive rebounding teams in the league this season, averaging 10.7 per game. But on Sunday, it looked like Stevens was focused on having his team get back and D-up, as Boston only collected five offensive rebounds for the game.

“…The emphasis to go the glass or not doesn’t really change, but the emphasis to get back and set your defence against Toronto is clearly a huge priority,” Stevens said. “If you look at any playoff series, it’s the easy baskets teams get to put them over the top, whether it’s the transition baskets, the offensive rebound baskets, loose balls, those type of things. You have to make everything as challenging as possible because they are great in transition.”

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The Celtics did a great job of neutralizing this aspect of the Raptors’ offence and it looked to seep into all other aspects of their offence, as the Raptors only shot 36.9 per cent from the field and 25 per cent from three-point range for the game.

In particular, Toronto’s two leading scorers from the first round of the playoffs – Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam – looked off on Sunday. They combined to shoot just 8-of-32 from the field for only 24 points.

The job the Celtics did to limit the Raptors in transition was particularly problematic for Siakam. Fast-break buckets are part of his bread-and-butter repertoire, as the Toronto all-star led the team in fast-break points and points off turnovers this season.

It was only one game and, as mentioned previously, the Raptors did manage to force turnovers, so Siakam isn’t too concerned because it all comes down to execution, ultimately.

“I think early they made a lot of shots, so there wasn’t really a lot of transition opportunities,” Siakam said of Boston’s ability to stop Toronto’s transition game. “But, obviously, once the game was going we got a lot of stops and I just don’t think we converted on the other side. So I think we’ve just got to do a better job once we get the stop and steals and stuff like that and convert them into points.”

It’s a point well made by Siakam but, as the clip below shows, against a team as long, athletic and defensively responsible as the Celtics, the execution aspect of it all may be the toughest part of the equation.

This is a play coming off more semi-transition than anything. But, as you can see, by the time Gasol outlets to Siakam, despite it looking like there’s an opportunity to attack with Celtics still getting back in position, it’s still too late for him to do so because he’s already getting picked up by Kemba Walker. And there are three Celtics back in the paint, forcing Siakam to attempt a tough shot that turned into a spectacular block by the Celtics’ Robert Williams III.

Given the nature of the blowout, there’s a lot you can point to that the Raptors need to clean up. But seeing as getting fast-break points has been key to their identity this season, this seems to be a problem they need to resolve immediately — lest their offence potentially remain as stagnant as it was on Sunday.

Thankfully for the Raptors, it seems Nurse has a solution in mind already.

“When you want to play in transition, you got to run a little harder and push the ball a little better and throw it ahead a little bit more and be just a little bit more aggressive,” he said.

Good advice, but against this Celtics team it’s a lot easier said than done. After all, they’ve already managed to ground the Raptors once before, so who’s to say they can’t just do it again?

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