Here’s the thing about the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors: they’ve been trending in polar opposite directions as the All-Star break looms. The Celtics hoped to enter the break with momentum; the Raptors just wanted to enter the break. Both teams got their wish, as the Celtics beat a shorthanded Toronto squad, 132-125. Must we really talk about why it was so close?
Fine, fine; it is the assignment after all. But first, some housekeeping: Marcus Smart (calf) and Romeo Langford (wrist) were still out for Boston, continuing to nurse their now long-term injuries. The Raptors, inversely, were without five players – Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and O.G. Anunoby chief among them – as well as Nick Nurse and five other coaches due to the league’s health and safety protocols. A man named Sergio Scariolo, who actually worked as a dishwasher salesman in the Toronto area before Masai Ujiri posted a “HELP NEEDED” ad in the paper, served as their head coach tonight. Based on how well they played, he deserves Coach of the Year, loss be damned.
Though things were relatively back and forth, the first quarter seemed to belong to Toronto, who dictated the game’s pace with a fluent inside-out game and consistent production from Norman Powell, in particular. You know how Boston has been plagued by zone defenses of late? Well, I’m not convinced they weren’t playing one in the first (which was won by the Raptors, 34-31); the Celtics gave up six three-pointers in the first, two of which came from Powell and most of which were met with little-to-no defensive pressure.
The Raptors, on the other hand, pressured everything the Celtics looked to do with full force. Boston’s most prominent pick and roll tandems – Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis, and Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams – were rendered useless, for the most part. Between Kyle Lowry fighting over screens and various Raptor bigs refusing to leave Robert Williams as he diverted to the rim for a lob, Toronto forced the Celtic guards into a throng of uncomfortable situations. With lobs unavailable and communication seemingly at a standstill, Boston turned the ball over six times in the first.
Despite missing 36-percent of their scoring without VanVleet and Siakam, Powell and Chris Boucher – no slouches on offense regardless of their team being shorthanded – proved dandy replacements, and the second quarter showed exactly why. Powell continued to gun effectively from deep, while Boucher paced the Raptors with eight points in the quarter, splitting time between the paint and the arc. As mentioned on the broadcast, he’s the only player in the league with 50 triples and 50 blocks; Boucher might only be 6-foot-9, but he has a 7-foot-4 wingspan that allows him the length of a center and the range of a swingman.
Boston never let things remotely approach getting out of hand, though. They cut their recorded turnovers in half (three in the second) and got opportune sparks off the bench from Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams (both scoring eight in the half) to keep the game close. Williams was finally able to get free for one alley-oop, and on the other end, he recorded three total blocks, continuing to bolster his approval rating in the New England area with a bevy of highlight plays. At the half, Toronto led, 70-66, but never mind that; heading into tonight, the Celtics were 13-2 (and 10-0 at home) when scoring 60-plus points in the first half.
The Celtics began the second half with three consecutive stalwart defensive possessions, forcing two turnovers (a shot clock violation and a travel from Aron Baynes), and cashed in on two of them, immediately erasing most of Toronto’s lead. What’s more: they forced Raptors not named Norman Powell – who had an extra bowl of Wheaties this morning – to create, which proved difficult. With five minutes gone in the third, Boston had outscored Toronto 16-7, capping off that early run with a pretty coast-coast flush from Tatum.
Toronto looked to go back and forth between loose man defense and a dummy zone through much of the third quarter, an approach largely exploited by the Celtics moving the ball better in the third than they had in the previous 24 minutes. It forced the likes of Aron Baynes and Terrence Davies into unfavorable defensive matchups and allowed a lineup largely consisting of reserves to take advantage of the Raptors being poorly positioned. Tatum played the whole third, scoring 11 of his 27 in the quarter; Grant Williams added five; even Jeff Teague produced, scoring four and assisting on three other buckets. Had Boston played for 48 minutes like they did in the third, the game would’ve unfolded as advertised.
Still, the Raptors hung around, never trailing by more than 11. Situations like what Toronto is currently dealing with lend themselves perfectly to the idea of making the most of the opportunities you’re given, and plenty of players otherwise limited in playtime did just that. The only Raptor to average more than 30 minutes per contest that saw action tonight is Kyle Lowry, but only two of those in tonight’s Toronto rotation other than Lowry play more than 20 minutes on average (Powell and Boucher). Terrence Davies (22 points tonight), Baynes (13), and Stanley Johnson (14) all saw extended time tonight, and though they’re not likely to see equivalent time when the key Raptors return after the All-Star break, perhaps their work against a mostly health Boston team is a silver lining.
It didn’t matter. Once they took a 75-74 lead with nine minutes left in the third, the Celtics wouldn’t trail again. Instead, they’d continue to give Grant Williams more minutes than he’d seen since Boston’s February 24th loss in Atlanta (he played 21 and didn’t score a point). Tonight, he took advantage of the opportunity he was given to the tune of 17 points and four rebounds.
Though Toronto briefly brought the game within three after consecutive scoring trips from Boucher, it never really seemed to be in doubt after the teams swapped sides; Walker drew a pivotal offensive foul with just under two minutes remaining, and two straight scoring trips – a Tatum pull-up and a Teague floater – the door felt all-but sealed shut. Boucher would hit another three to bring it within four with 30-seconds left, but a missed three from Kyle Lowry with 20 seconds to go would clinch the win for Boston. The usual suspects got theirs (Tatum finished with 27 and Brown had 21), and eight Celtics finished in double figures in the win. Boucher led the Raptors with 30, and Kyle Lowry finished with a career-high 19 assists.
As far as building momentum goes, a four-game winning streak, their second-longest of the season, will do just fine. The Celtics head into the All-Star break at 19-17, looking to get both Marcus Smart and Romeo Langford back from injury when the team returns to face the Brooklyn Nets next Thursday.