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Cat and mouse: how the Celtics pulled away from the Raptors

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All year, we've talked about Brad Stevens' read-and-react system and how it puts the onus on the players to make the right basketball play.

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The Celtics' identity all year has been defense. After holding the Toronto Raptors to 79 points on Wednesday, Boston ranks 4th in defensive efficiency at 100.4 points per 100 possessions behind the Spurs, Hawks, and Pacers. Their D has wavered since the start of the season, but fortunately, their offense has improved steadily and allowed the team to maintain the 8th-best net rating at 3.5. Last night's win was game #72 on the schedule, and after a long grueling season, you can see how smooth the offense is running after some early growing pains.

With last night's game in the balance and the Celtics nursing a one-point lead at 71-70, the team ran some of their patented read-and-react motion midway through the fourth quarter. With both bigs above the break to space the floor, they ran some sideline action with Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley with Jared Sullinger effectively running point.

It's subtle, but Thomas slips between Sully and Bismack Biyombo as he heads towards AB to create a little bit of separation from Delon Wright. It's just enough space for Bradley to set a pick on Wright, freeing up IT4 for the corner three. That triple lead to the Wahlberg Point:

On the ensuing play, instead of Wright getting hung up on the pick, Terrence Ross calls for the switch and quickly shows on Thomas before he can get up a shot. Unfortunately for him, that puts him in perfect position to be picked off by Amir Johnson and doesn't give the Raptors enough time to set up their PnR defense. Amir rolls to the rim, Jason Thompson halfheartedly rises up on Thomas, and Isaiah hits Johnson for the dunk.

On Boston's next play, it's pure trickery. Thomas dekes toward Bradley but quickly moves to his left and uses an Amir Johnson screen to lose Wright for the open 3. There are so many options in Boston's offense that you just don't know what's coming next. Different combinations of players cause the defense to react in different ways, and like a boxing match, every punch has a counter. Toronto would not get within a possession for the rest of the game, and the Celtics would get their first win over the Raptors this season.

Since January 12th (when they started incorporating more small ball), the Celtics have the 8th most efficient offense in the league and that's propelled them to a 23-12 record since then. They're one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA and sport the worst free throw differential, and yet, they're making things work with a team chemistry that's been developing since training camp. They head out on a five-game, two-week road trip, and surprisingly, they've played better on the offensive end away from the Garden. There's a chance that Jae Crowder could come back out West, and it would be a welcome return as the Celtics prepare for the playoffs.