Raptors' revitalization vs. Celtics courtesy of gritty effort, sacrifice

Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry (7) celebrates with teammate Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Boston Celtics. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

TORONTO – The word “effort” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a “conscious exertion of power.”

Another way to define it would be to just take a look at what the Toronto Raptors have been doing in their second-round series against the Boston Celtics.

Looking down and out after going down 2-0 early in the series, the Raptors scratched and clawed to help set up OG Anunoby’s miracle buzzer-beater in Game 3 and then carried that momentum forward in the form of improved shot-making in their series-tying Game 4 performance on Saturday.

And they don’t look like they’ll be stopping anytime soon, either.

Incredibly, over their last two contests, the Raptors have four players averaging more than 40 minutes per game in Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Anunoby, and every second of their playing time has been needed since that group has been among Toronto’s most effective four-man units, boasting a plus-13 advantage in 55 minutes on the floor the last two games.

More than anything, there’s a desire on the part of these players to want to be on the floor as much as possible.

“If you’re ever going to do it, now’s the time to do it," said VanVleet after Saturday’s win. "There’s nothing to be resting for, there’s no tomorrow. There’s no, really, way to manage it and coach is putting his trust in us and communicating to a level where if you need a rest you get one, if you need him to call a timeout you get one, but right now I think he’s rolling with the big guns and that’s the way that we like it. So it’s conditioning. It’s what you work hard for. We got a good three-month layoff and I think we’re feeling as good as we can get given the circumstances.”

Added Siakam: “For me, I’m here to sacrifice for my team. I don’t care if I play 1,000 minutes every night. I don’t really care. I’m doing everything I can to help our team win. That’s what I’m committed to do.”

This willingness on the Raptors’ part to sacrifice their bodies is further proof of the kind of effort they’ve been willing to put in to get back into their series with Boston, and a significant aspect of that can be seen on the defensive end.

In Game 4 in particular, the Raptors put in their most complete defensive performance of the series, holding the Celtics to only 93 points and a dreadful 20 per cent from three-point range.

The effort was most notable when it came to limiting the looks of at least one of Boston’s stars as well as contesting three-pointers.

Celtics star Kemba Walker only took nine shots on Saturday and said after the game he “wasn’t aggressive enough.”

“That's unacceptable on my behalf, to be honest,” said Walker. “There's no way I can just be taking nine shots. That's unacceptable.”

Walker was a little more passive than usual in Game 4, but that was mostly due to the schemes of Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who has now thrown the kitchen sink of defensive coverages at him in the pick-and-roll — from basic man-to-man, to triangle-and-two and almost everything in between.

“I think we've needed all of it. Man, he's awful good. He's got that combination of jet speed coming off there if he goes to the rim. He’s also got the combination of fast to the three-point line pull-up, so it's certainly a challenge,” said Nurse on Sunday. “We are just trying to give him different matchups and different coverages and different looks to try to take care of it. I think he still got a share of great plays out of them, so we're gonna just continue to work and challenge as best we can.”

The clip above is one of Matt Thomas switching onto Walker and being able to make a good contest without fouling him, and is indicative of not only the kind of focus the Raptors have in trying to limit Walker, but also in trying to stop Boston’s three-point assault.

Granted, of the 35 triples the Celtics put up, 21 were considered to be “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com’s definition (4-6 feet or six feet or more of space between the shooter and the closest defender), but the 14 other looks were contested and Boston only made two of them. This is thanks to all-out exertion to get a hand up as seen from Thomas in the clip above and Siakam here in the clip below as he sprints to the corner to get a good contest on Jaylen Brown.

As VanVleet said, this isn’t rocket science, this is just effort, and the Raptors are lucky to have guys who are willing to put it in game after game.

It’s what’s helped turn the tide in their favour in this series and may just be what wins it for them.

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