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A rivalry is born and 9 other takeaways from Celtics vs. Raptors

It’s not the result Boston wanted, but as Brad Stevens says, “it’s a process.”

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Celtics and Raptors both loaded up the past two seasons. Two summers ago, Boston got Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. This past summer, Toronto added Kawhi Leonard. In an Eastern Conference that is wide open for the first time in a decade since LeBron James headed west, these two teams are going to battle all year. This was just game one of at least four. If we’re lucky, we could get seven more in the spring.

2. Early in the game, the Celtics got some great looks off some excellent ball movement and spacing. One of those plays was an Al Horford and-1, where he blew by Jonas Valanciunas because the floor was spaced so well.

3. It’s only been two games, but Brad Stevens has already settled on a rotation pattern. In both games, Stevens pulled Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward fairly early in the first quarter. Then, when the second unit is on the floor, Stevens goes back to Tatum as the offensive anchor for that group. Hayward follows a few minutes later.

To start the second half, Hayward is on the bench. This is to help keep his minutes under control and to have him available for crunch time. It also allows Stevens to play the match ups a little.

4. Sticking with Hayward, he worked with skills trainer Drew Hanlen on using his size to take advantage of smaller players in mismatches, knowing teams would have to switch against Boston. Early in the first quarter, Hayward got Kyle Lowry on switches several times and was able to take advantage.

5. Last one on Hayward: he looked far more comfortable against Toronto than he did on Opening Night. That is to be expected, as he gets back to normal. One thing Hayward flashed against the Raptors was his change of pace ability. When he was with Utah, Hayward excelled at changing pace while handling the ball. It’s a pretty rare skill and he’s mastered it.

6. Marcus Smart remains the NBA’s most unique defender. On one second quarter possession, Smart started on Kawhi Leonard and then switched on to Fred VanVleet. As the ball went to the weakside, he saw Terry Rozier had ended up with Jonas Valanciunas. Smart called for a jump switch and took the big man himself. Valanciunas tried to post Smart and this was the result:

7. The Celtics ball movement was much better vs. the Raptors than vs. the 76ers, minus the last two minutes (more on that in a bit.). Boston finished with 29 assists on 40 baskets. Horford led the way with nine assists, while Kyrie Irving and Smart tallied six apiece. On a team with a lot of weapons, moving the ball is important to keep everyone involved.

8. An old bugaboo came back to haunt Boston late in the fourth quarter: defensive rebounding. After doing a nice job controlling the glass all game long, the Celtics let the Raptors get all over the offensive boards in the fourth. Serge Ibaka in particular had great success getting Toronto extra possessions. Horford does a lot of things well, but he’s not a dominant rebounder and Boston tends to close with a small lineup around Horford. It’s something they’ve got to figure out.

9. Speaking of closing the game…it’s pretty clear Stevens doesn’t have his five closers yet. Last year, without Hayward, it was Irving, Smart, Brown, Tatum and Horford. When Irving went out for the year, Terry Rozier took his place. That was always the group Boston used to close games. Opening Night didn’t feature closers, as the game was well in hand. Against Toronto, Stevens was clearly searching a little. With this much talent at his disposal, this is one of the most important decision Stevens will have to make.

10. Perhaps driven by the lack of a comfortable closing unit, the Celtics were a mess down the stretch. After Horford hit a three-pointer with 2:53 to play to pull Boston within 101-99, the Raptors ripped off the next 10 points to close the game. On offense the ball got sticky. The great passing that had been in display for most of the first half went missing and Boston ended up with contested, late-clock jumpers. On the other end, Toronto looked like they had been together for years, as they worked to get great shots to close the game.

The Celtics will get there. It will take some time, with Stevens figuring out what he wants and needs from a closing lineup. But there will be some growing pains along the way.

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