Well that was a good, ole’ fashioned thrashing.
The Boston Celtics were wire-to-wire leaders over the defending champion Toronto Raptors on Friday night, their third win in four meetings this year. The confidence boost and momentum from the victory heading into a potential second-round postseason matchup with the Raptors is huge.
But what the Celtics put on display was more than riding a heatwave or having all the bounces just go their way. Boston completely dismantled their divisional foe, on both ends, and illuminated just how good this team can be when firing on all cylinders.
Matchups against the Raptors bode well for Boston. Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are bigger wings who can frustrate Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Daniel Theis is mobile and strong enough to contain Marc Gasol wherever he goes. Jaylen Brown is the disciplined defender that can hold his own against budding superstar Pascal Siakam.
Coach Brad Stevens didn’t stop there. He made strategic decisions with his rotations, saving Marcus Smart for the times Lowry is usually deployed against opposing second units. He benched Enes Kanter for the evening in favor of the more mobile Robert Williams, who is a much better fit vs, stretch-5 Serge Ibaka.
In conception and execution, the Celtics’ gameplan was flawless. On both ends of the floor they showed their dominance.
Sometimes basketball is a simple game. If you make shots, your offense looks good. There’s no doubt the Celtics had the collective hot hand and the Raptors did not. But it’s the little things--the ball movement, flow, and incorporation of all gears on the machine--that left the largest impression from the victory.
There are two ways to look at team-based offense. One is to see it as a group of individuals where each member gets their own moment to throw some haymakers. The other is based on all teammates working together to figure out which person is best positioned to throw the haymaker that’ll knock the opponent down hardest. Less predetermining and more fluidity help make this happen.
With Kemba Walker, Tatum, Brown and Hayward, Boston has four prolific scorer who can go off at any time or in any matchup. Despite their top-five offensive efficiency rating, the Celtics are 27th in assist percentage, a statistic indicative of one-on-one creation for scores and less of a team-based, make-the-extra-pass approach. For as great as their attack has been all year, the room to grow always was predicated on letting the ball talk and decide who would get the look.
Typically, Boston’s assist rate is just above 55 percent. On Friday, the core six (the starting unit and Marcus Smart) had 20 assists on 28 field goals, a tidy 69 percent assist rate.
What was the difference for the Celtics?
They got, and made, a ton of corner threes.
An analytically-positive shot, the corner triple provides the highest point per shot based on standard field goal percentage from that distance. Because it’s stationed in a corner, it’s also the hardest place for help defenders to reach without consequence if an open attempt occurs. Teams who get open triples have players who put pressure on the rim and draw in helpers, but they also are teams who make the extra pass and hit the corner shooter instead of flipping up tough contested twos.
Boston was 8-for-13 on corner triples, good for 1.84 points per shot. The best part about corner treys: so few of them are unassisted. Players don’t dribble themselves into the corner just to fire up a 3-point attempt. If the Celtics are taking a high amount of corner treys, it means they’re breaking down the first line of defense and sharing the ball when they get to the second.
Good teams take those contested shots, but great teams anticipate the defensive rotations and zip the ball to the corner before defenders can arrive. Boston’s proactive ball movement was absolutely splendid all night:
Another vital part to striking the balance comes in how the core four incorporate Theis into the attack. As the fifth wheel, it’s easy for opponents to sag off Theis on the perimeter and dare him to shoot: if you can pick your own poison, it’d be almost futile not to select him. But he can’t just be called upon in the moments where he’s left open. By getting quality looks created by the others, he develops rhythm so he has confidence to knock down those shots they’ll ask him to. That’s always the mark of a well-oiled machine.
In the second quarter, Theis got his moment in the sun. He didn’t hesitate or look to defer, and the shots were undoubtedly the right ones for the team. After he saw one go in on the possession prior, Theis got an open look created for him by an unselfish Jaylen drive:
Toronto is an admirably strong defensive unit, with few weak links and consistently crisp rotations. Boston was just a half-step quicker on Friday, and they rotated the ball with such pace that the Raptors could never catch up.
The Raptors couldn’t hit a fish if they dropped a line in the fish-stocked ponds at Disney.
Never apologize for a result in this game where wins are hard to come by, but the Raptors clearly weren’t at their best. Lowry, VanVleet, and Siakam were a combined 2-14 from deep, and Siakam uncharacteristically had zero assists.
The Celtics certainly did a ton to compound their failures, forcing 17 turnovers and executing perfect closeouts on the Raptors’ shooters. The length at the point of attack with Tatum, Brown, and Hayward clearly bothered the smaller guards, while Smart was a terror with his usual bursts of effort and communication.
The Raptors are the league’s premier transition offensive team, led by Siakam and Lowry crashing the defensive glass so they can push tempo before their opponent’s defense gets set. The easiest way to take Toronto out of that attack is to make shots, so the Celtics shooting 49 percent and knocking down their corner threes certainly helps.
When Toronto is at their best, they’re speeding up the court as quickly as possible after a miss. Often it doesn’t lead to an immediate shot, but can distort matchups for the defense and target opposing centers through mismatches that lead to baskets:
The Raptors are very average in the half court, sixteenth in efficiency and bothered by the length of the Celtics wings. If Stevens could turn this into a half court game, the Celtics would have a good chance to win.
In the half court, Toronto looks to get Siakam the ball towards the hoop with a head of steam, through quick kick outs or ball screens that create mismatches. A popular set of theirs is to have VanVleet come to set a screen for him, see if they can catch the defense either switching or hedging with a little guard that Siakam can feast on.
The Celtics were prepared. Not only did they see the action coming, but Kemba perfectly hedged and allowed Jaylen to recover to negate the screen:
It may not seem like much, but the key to great defense is having good defenders avoid making mistakes. Communication and discipline shuts down mismatches or open looks, and enables strong individual defenders like Jaylen to operate one-on-one.
What we saw on Friday was the most consistent 48-minute effort from Gang Green in a long time, and certainly their best performance in the bubble. It’s not a first-class ticket to The NBA Finals, but it’s exactly the boost of adrenaline and confidence the Celtics need heading into the playoffs.