The Boston Celtics beat the Toronto Raptors in their last matchup—without Kyrie Irving. But the Raptors have improved notably since then, and historically match up well against our heroes in green. Kyrie was back for their second matchup, but it would be a struggle regardless.
It ended up a bloodbath, with the Raptors bludgeoning the Cs offensively and playing lockdown D. The teams’ season series is now tied 1-1, but at this precise moment, Toronto has the advantage.
THE GAME FLOW
The first quarter was a violent shootout to start. Toronto had the initial lead but Boston fought back reasonably well to make it a close score. PG Kyle Lowry has never lacked for three-point shooting, and brought it immediately to bear with three treys in less than six minutes, with the score at 15-11 Toronto at about the 7:00 mark.
As the Raptors began to drive the lane instead of chuck, the Cs contested strongly, with tough consecutive stops including a smackdown block of DeMar DeRozan—who’s evolved into a much more versatile and thus deadlier player—by Al Horford. (That said, DeMar scored nothing for the first quarter.) On Boston’s side of things, Kyrie, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier did most of the offensive lifting, enough to be only be four points behind Toronto when the Q1 buzzer rang out.
Not unlike that goddamned red wheelbarrow, so much for these Celtics depends on Kyrie, and he did about as much as you could ask for in this game’s early going: moving the ball, not chucking, doing his level best on defense. Jaylen and Rozier continued to pitch in plenty, but Irving’s effectiveness waned in Q2. And we know full well he’s a player who can do a lot for himself, but not everything.
But in the end, the team as a whole couldn’t defend the three-point line well, allowing the Raptors to shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc. Toronto bench-mob dudes like Delon Wright (who has impressed me all year) and Fred VanVleet (who has not, but is like, fine), put in even more work than the starters.
I imagine the young guys could them off guard; they’re not the dudes who usually show up with beacoup paragraphs in scouting reports (or box scores, for that matter). But that’s no excuse for letting a lead of 21 points at its apex to materialize. Record be damned, the Raptors looked undeniably like the better team at the halfway point, as they held enough of a winning margin for a line of 58-37 in their favor.
(Does this all mean the Raptors are a better team than the Celtics? No. But they were certainly better right now, and have played better than the Cs over the past few weeks. They are as likely to Go For It as the Celtics may be, in the wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ continuing implosion, and thus cannot be underestimated.)
Toronto didn’t score at quite the torrid pace seen during the first half, at least not to start. But they didn’t have to: Boston remained utterly flummoxed by the new system Dwayne Casey developed for the Raptors—far more motion-reliant and defensively adept than one would ever expect from the notoriously old-fashioned coach.
Lowry’s marksmanship at the three-point line continued, as Kyrie’s offense stagnated. Toronto did everything possible to dominate the boards on both ends of the floor—and also to limit Horford’s playmaking, holding him to just 2 points, 6 boards and 3 assists in the third quarter. (If defense this hard on Al doesn’t persuade you of his value, I don’t know what the hell to tell you.) The Cs continued poor shooting (39 percent through 3 frames) made everything that much worse, and with the Raps ahead 83-60 with one quarter left, things seemed dire.
Nothing of note improved in the opening half of the contest’s final frame. The Celtics shooting got more putrid, and the Raptors, driven by principally by Lowry but with a ton of help from Wright, VanVleet and C.J. Miles (another guy whose existence in the NBA I forgot, albeit not because he was bad). Brad Stevens rotated a nearly full contingent of bench guys into the game to play out the string, with only Aron Baynes to represent the starters on the floor. Boston was lucky to escape with the loss that they endured—a brutal 111-91 beatdown.
HOT ISH: Rozier and Daniel Theis putting in good backup performances.
NOT ISH: Pretty much everything else. The Raptors got such a bounty of points off turnovers from the Celtics, with 10 steals, while also benefiting from opportunities for second-chance points that they created.
In the long run, does any of this mean the Celtics are a bad team and the Raptors are an Eastern Conference Finals lock? No. Boston is ordinarily a very good basketball squad, with flashes of greatness and occasional moments of baffling collapse. But Toronto is exactly the same. They’re for real. At least until the playoffs. (I’M BUMMED AND I COULDN’T HELP IT.)
Rozier steal-and-run turned TATUM SMASH:
Horford’s massive block: