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Boston looks like contenders again: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/Raptors

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The Celtics never trailed and led by as many as 40 points as they rolled over the Raptors

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

1. This was a statement win for the Celtics. Boston got back on track by blowing out Brooklyn on Wednesday, but that’s not a win anyone is going to crow about. Hammering Toronto in a game where the Celtics never trailed and led by as many as 40 points? That’s a real thing with meaning.

In both wins, the Celtics got after it from the tip defensively and they had good ball and player movement. These victories show it is really about who Boston plays, but how Boston plays. If they play Celtics basketball, they can compete for a title. If not, it’ll be a short playoff stay.

2. The Celtics passing was on point, as they racked up 27 assists on 47 baskets. Boston is 13-0 when they have at least 27 assists in a game. Jayson Tatum said after the game “That’s who we need to be. We have so much talent, especially offensively.”

It started right from the tip, as the ball popped around before Gordon Hayward found Daniel Theis for an and-1:

Here’s Kemba Walker showing how bigs have to respect him in pick-and-roll and Theis showing a good sense of when to slip the screen:

When Hayward, Walker and Marcus Smart make good passes, you expect it. When Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum do it, your heart flutters with excitement. This drive and dish to Theis by Brown is terrific read by a developing playmaker:

Let’s pause here to recognize Theis and how important he is for Boston. Tatum, Brad Stevens and Theis himself said after the game that his ability to step out and hit jumpers is huge for the team. It pulls the big away from the paint and helps open up the floor.

Back to the passing, this find from Brown is just awesome and fun:

Look at how happy Tatum is at the end of that clip. And what should make everyone with an interest in the Celtics excited is Tatum making passes like this when he sees the double is coming:

You have to love how Tatum takes one extra dribble to hold the defender and then passes it right off the bounce. Good stuff.

3. Kemba Walker is feeling good. You can tell that when he’s blocking shots at the rim off inbounds plays:

4. It was a quiet scoring night for Gordon Hayward in the blowout, but when he can attack out of pick and roll like this, it opens everything up for Boston. Hayward uses a nice inside-out dribble to freeze Marc Gasol for the layup here:

5. Brad Stevens played an eight-man rotation during the competitive portion of the game. Marcus Smart and Brad Wanamaker were two off the bench, which is no surprise. The big was Robert Williams over Enes Kanter, which raised the eyebrows a bit.

Toronto isn’t a great matchup for Kanter, as both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol spend far more time at the arc nowadays than they do in the post. Williams also earned this run after playing out of his mind against the Nets.

What kept Williams on the floor was his defense. He didn’t bite on fakes by Ibaka. He cut off drivers and recovered to his man in pick and roll/pop. Williams’ athleticism has a chance to make a major difference for Boston in the playoffs if he plays like he has the last two games.

6. As for Brad Wanamaker, he was really good in this game for the Celtics. He scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and had four rebounds and two steals. His defense on Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet was very good too. As the oldest member of the roster, Wanamaker doesn’t have the upside of Tremont Waters. He also doesn’t have any flash to his game. But he’s solid and reliable. You can’t ask for much more in a backup point guard than that.

7. Because the Celtics essentially play with only one big, they often seem small. But that kind of misses just how big Boston is on the wing. This shows up against Toronto, because Lowry and VanVleet are one of the league’s smaller backcourts. That creates opportunities like this, where Hayward takes the rebound over the top of Lowry for the easy putback:

8. Kemba Walker takes the Celtics from good to great. His pull-up jumper is going to be a important weapon against both Toronto and Milwaukee, should Boston make it that far. Both teams like to drop their bigs, which opens up jumpers for the ballhandler. If you drop the big and go over the screen, Walker is pulling up:

And, unlike a lot of pull-up shooters, Walker is happy to take three-pointers off the dribble too:

Those are shots Boston will get in a series against the Raptors or Bucks. Having Walker in the lineup makes it far more likely those are shots the Celtics will make.

9. Early in the third quarter, Toronto went on a quick 6-0 run and cut Boston’s lead to 10 at 55-45. Brad Stevens did something Celtics fans regularly beg him to do: he called a timeout to quell the run. Whatever Stevens said worked as the Celtics outscored the Raptors 36-12 over the final 10 minutes of the quarter to put the game on ice. It was nice to see even the coach making an adjustment that he’s often loathe to make.

10. Boston has three seeding games left at Walt Disney World before the playoffs start. Those games are all winnable for the Celtics, as they play the Magic, Grizzlies and Wizards. But don’t be surprised if Stevens tosses a couple away as he manages his main players to have them ready for the postseason.

Boston is essentially locked in at the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They can mathematically catch Toronto for #2 or be caught from behind by Miami and drop to #4, but both are extremely unlikely.

Most importantly, in the craziest NBA season on record, the Celtics look like contenders again. It took them a week or so to find themselves, but it looks like Boston did so right on time.