Better play, familiar result as Raptors begin in-season tournament with loss

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) dribbles towards the net while guarded by Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday (4) and guard Jaylen Brown (7) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Friday, November 17, 2023. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

TORONTO — The expectation was that the Toronto Raptors would come out of the gates with a little more pop Friday night than they have in the first two games of their four-game homestand.

Do you recall? They sleep-walked through the first half against the lowly Washington Wizards only to roar back from down 23 early in the third quarter. That was fun. Less fun was when they fell behind by 23 at half to the Milwaukee Bucks and did not roar back, a more typical outcome.

But everything was lining up Friday night, apart from the fact that the visiting Boston Celtics have been the NBA’s best team through the first month of the season.

The Raptors had extra motivation after getting smoked by Boston at TD Garden last Saturday, leaving a wound that had a little extra salt in it for the Raptors after Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla dared to use his coach’s challenge with less than four minutes to play and his team leading by 27. Raptors guard Dennis Schroder said it was “disrespectful”. Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic would offer only a tight-lipped “no comment.”


And then was Friday night’s game as the Raptors’ first installment of the new-fangled in-season tournament. There was a new black-and-grey court and eye-popping gold uniforms.

Does it feel a little different than your standard Friday night in November, Rajakovic was asked.

“It does, it does,” he said. “Everybody’s aware that it’s the in-season tournament and we’re playing against a great opponent. We’re ready to go out there and really compete for 48 minutes and do our best.”

Well, for large portions of the game, they did just that. For example, the Raptors started out playing smart, crisp, and energized basketball against the Celtics, even if Toronto was without O.G. Anunoby for the third straight game after he cut the index finger of his right hand doing ‘household chores’ on Toronto’s day off last Sunday.

Even more impressive was that after the Celtics — who have been to five Eastern Conference Finals in the past seven years — pushed back and took a comfortable lead into the half, the Raptors stepped up again. Maybe it was the prospect of the $500,000 winners share for the players on the team that wins the ‘IST,’ or maybe it was the flashy uniforms and the bold court. But against a team that went all-in to win a title this season with a pair of defining moves to acquire centre Kristaps Porzingis and point guard Jrue Holiday, the Raptors competed all the way down to the wire in perhaps their most impressive outing of the season.

The result? Well, that’s the disappointing part. After a put-back by Jakob Poeltl gave the Raptors the lead with 1:19 to play, a jumper in the lane by Porzingis tied the score before Derrick White hit a wide-open three in the corner that was set-up when the Raptors over-helped to guard Holiday as he bulled his way into the lane. That gave Boston a three-point lead with 27 seconds to play. The Raptors managed get an open look at a game-tying three by Scottie Barnes on an improvised sideline out-of-bounds play, but Barnes couldn’t get it to drop. When Boston made their free throws the game was done and the Celtics escaped with a 108-105 win that improved their record to 10-2 and 2-0 in IST play.

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“I wish he played eight, nine more minutes for us tonight,” said Rajakovic, who sat Siakam after he picked up his third foul with just under four minutes left in the first quarter.

Dennis Schroder also had 23 for Toronto while making a season-high five threes on 11 attempts. The Raptors shot 48.3 per cent from the floor and made 12-of-33 triples. Jalen Brown led the Celtics with 23 as Boston shot 45.7 per cent from the floor and was 16-of-46 from deep.

“Well, we lost the game but at the end of the day, I think it’s a good thing for the league,” Schroeder said of his first taste of IST play. “It felt kind of special, kind of like a playoff game and looking forward to the other ones.”

There were some hiccups. A number of players slipped awkwardly on the brightly painted wood floor, which didn’t go over well. “I thought the floor was kind of unacceptable,” said Brown.

Added Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa: “It was slippery. I fell myself a few times … I mean, I think I’m fine with the colour [but] I just want to play basketball. But at the same time, I’m not trying to get hurt.”

The floor aside it was a display the home team can be proud of. They moved the ball (29 assists) and got some balanced scoring, with all five starters in double figures, and they battled to the wire against one of the NBA’s elite teams. But the result was all too familiar. Their 0-1 record in the IST doesn’t eliminate them from contention, but it does require them to run the table of their next three games in group play to have a chance to advance to the eight-team knockout round.

The Raptors can claim some hard luck in that Siakam had to sit down after picking up his third foul nine minutes into the game. He seemed poised to go on a heater and him spending so much time on the bench when the Raptors were rolling didn’t help their cause.

The Raptors built a 32-26 first-quarter lead thanks to ball movement and cutting that produced 10 assists on 14 made field goals. Gary Trent Jr. returned after missing three games with plantar fasciitis and scored nine points in eight minutes, taking advantage of a rare start. Siakam was looking decisive, hunting advantages, and posting up. He had eight before foul trouble kicked in.

But then Boston’s talent began to show. More often than not when the Raptors drove the lane, all seven-foot-three of Porzingis was there waiting to block a shot or alter it. He put Chris Boucher on the ground with a forceful block when the Montrealer tried to dunk on him. At the other end of the floor, the Celtics’ ability to have five three-point threats on the floor at all times — including Porzingis — left the Raptors scrambling and the paint wide open. The Celtics took advantage in every possible way with rapid ball movement that led to wide-open threes and drives from the perimeter that ended as lobs to Porzingis. If all else failed, Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, both all-NBA wings, would bully smaller Raptors defenders in the post-ups.

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“I sat down for I don’t know how many minutes, so I was just trying to play basketball,” he said. “At the end of the day, that was it, I just wanted to get into the game. just wanted to play basketball and that’s really like, I just wanted to get into the game.”

He did by dialling into one of his preferred spots on the floor — the mid-post — where he would either turn and score over an isolated defender or find his teammates if the Celtics sent help. With Siakam at his aggressive best and the offence flowing through him, Toronto began to chip away at Boston’s lead, eventually tying the game 73-73 with 4:47 to play in the third on a Schroder triple set up by a Siakam drive that topped off a 24-8 run. It was one of three helpers for Siakam who also added 11 points in the quarter as Toronto basically reversed the results of the second quarter and started the fourth trailing by three.

The game remained nip-and-tuck from that point but Toronto would like to have a few plays back. Rajakovic got caught with Barnes on the bench for nearly four straight minutes down the stretch in the fourth quarter when he tried to steal a brief rest for the multi-talented forward but couldn’t get him back in until there were just 27 seconds left because there was no stoppage in play. If he had a do over Rajakovic says he might have used one of his two remaining timeouts to get Barnes it.

“I’m gonna own that, I was not able to get him back on the court,” said Rajakovic.

The other mistake was the Raptors swarming Holiday in the lane and leaving White wide open in the corner for the game-icing three.

“We’re trying to help at the rim and keep rotating,” said Siakam. “Take away the corner and we just to keep rotating. We can’t be late on those. It happens.”

As do losses when teams don’t execute done the stretch. Siakam was as good as anyone else on the floor and the Raptors as a group kept finding ways to score and force Boston into uncomfortable possessions.

Not a win, but perhaps a building block going forward.

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