At first I thought Rasheed Wallace was just having a good game back on November 27 and the Celtics just happened to be playing the Raptors. Then, when January 2 rolled around and 'Sheed posted another great game against Toronto, the signs of consistency were starting to swirl. Hmm...Maybe 'Sheed likes playing the Raptors. Then, yesterday happened and it is now an indisputable fact: Rasheed Wallace LOVES playing against the Toronto Raptors.
Here are his lines from all three games:
November 27: 6-11 FG, 3-6 3PT, 0-0 FT, 15 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 steals, 1 block, 1 turnover, 1 technical foul
January 2: 6-11 FG, 2-5 3PT, 2-2 FT, 16 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 0 turnovers, 1 technical foul
January 10: 9-12 FG, 5-7 3 PT, 6-6 FT, 29 points, 8 rebounds, 0 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 0 turns, 0 technical fouls (!)
That last line is a doozy. In what was arguably his best performance as a member of the Boston Celtics, Rasheed struck hard and struck early from all angles and both sides of the ball. Two defensive highlights for Wallace yesterday: Yelling at Kendrick Perkins to stay "Straight up!" when Perk was stuck in a mismatch against Jarrett Jack in the corner with 9:42 left in the first quarter and the pass he stole that was intended for Chris Bosh with 1:07 left to play. It cut off a potential scoring opportunity for Toronto amidst their comeback and swung the momentum.
It's difficult to tell what 'Sheed's motivation is when the Celtics and Raptors square off. Clearly playing at home in Boston isn't the source, as he had his best game against Toronto in an entirely different country. So what exactly fuels him when he sees Toronto on the schedule? Is it his ongoing feud with Hedo Turkoglu? Is it that thirst to best Turkoglu that serves as his primary motivation? What about the matchups whenever these teams play one another? Does he know he can pretty much own either Chris Bosh or Andrea Bargnani every time they meet in the paint or out on the perimeter?
The matchup option makes the most sense to me. Chris Bosh is one of the best in the NBA that you never hear about and Andrea Bargnani is starting to show signs of living up to the pressure of being the number one overall pick in the NBA draft. But neither are excellent defensive players (compared to guys like Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan in their primes), either inside or out along the three-point line. So when a guy as talented as 'Sheed decides to exert himself and impose his will on the game, those two individual defenders don't stand much of a chance of stopping him.
Also, many of 'Sheed's three-pointers yesterday were practically wide open, which is a result of him either working the pick-and-pop with Rondo or (and this happened on a few occasions during yesterday's game), waiting for the defense to focus on the strong side (say with Ray Allen holding the ball in the corner) so he can float out of the paint to the weak side wing or weak side corner, and accept the skip pass that skirts by the defense.
As nice as it is seeing 'Sheed own one specific team, in the larger scheme of things, the Raptors are just one of 29 opponents the Celtics will square off against this season. And while there is a chance these two squads could potentially meet in the postseason (this is one of those scenarios where the higher-seeded-team-picking-its-opponent playoff seeding style would favor the Celtics), it would most likely only be in the first round. So 'Sheed dominating a .500 Eastern Conference opponent isn't necessarily as useful as 'Sheed dominating an Eastern Conference heavyweight like the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Atlanta Hawks.
When we re-examine the matchup situation we actually find the major flaw in all of this. The Raps might be a weak team defensively as a whole and 'Sheed might not have All-Defensive Team talent guarding him, but those two traits are not limited solely to the Toronto Raptors. Plenty of other teams the Celtics have played against and have lost to boast similar defenses to Toronto and feature less than spectacular defenders at the power forward and center positions. Three teams that come to mind: The Los Angeles Clippers, the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns.
'Sheed's averages against those teams this season:
vs. PHX (2 games): 7-23 FG, 0-10 3PT, 0-0 FT, 7.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1 steal, 1 turnover
vs. LAC (1 game): 4-16 FG, 0-6 3PT, 0-0 FT, 8 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover
vs. GSW (1 game): 2-5 FG, 2-5 3 PT, 0-0 FT, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 0 blocks, 0 turnovers
Not exactly headline worthy stuff. 'Sheed's effort and interest level were a few of the things in question (along with his age) when he joined the Celtics during the offseason. Is this simply a matter of his interest level not always being there? If so, because those three other teams present somewhat similar defensive scenarios/matchups as the Raptors, something about Toronto must set him off. It disproves my matchup theory, but 'Sheed's is such a complex personality that I wouldn't disregard him as one to just pick and choose when he really wants to play. Perhaps this is the proof of that "he plays when he wants to" theory that some of us have been looking for. All we can really hope for then, is that whatever lights a fire under his butt against the Raptors is burning out of control when the playoffs roll around.