Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 132-125 loss to the Boston Celtics.
One — Gutted: The Raptors showed plenty of heart to battle as hard as they did, with half a roster and a third of their coaches, against a tricky opponent in the Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back. All losses count the same, but some are more acceptable than others. It was not acceptable to lay an egg in that fashion against the Detroit Pistons, whereas you can live with the effort the Raptors gave in an extremely difficult circumstance. It was a scheduled loss all the way, thanks to the NBA's cruel decision to go ahead with the game, but the Raptors did its very best to beat the odds.
Two — Unselfish: It's no surprise that Kyle Lowry's legs lack lift in the second night of a back-to-back at the age of 34. Outside of a flurry in the third quarter, Lowry was largely unable to get his shot, and the majority of his misses were blocked or caught nothing but air. However, the mark of a great player is being able to affect every aspect of the game, and Lowry was still a crucial contributor just through his playing. Lowry set a career-high and matched a Raptors franchise record with 19 assists, and was outsmarting the Celtics defense all night while putting a cast of role players into great positions to score. The Celtics had to pull out a last-minute zone to stop Lowry from picking them apart in the pick-and-roll at the end, which is pretty incredible considering Lowry was 5-of-18 from the field. You see zones all the time to stop a player from scoring, but Lowry forced a shift just with his passing.
Three — Loose: The Raptors have not been able to defend in the absence of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet, which is hardly a surprise. Anunoby is the most versatile defender in the league, switching freely between all five positions, and Siakam is also at the top. VanVleet leads the league in steals and deflections. Not only is it hard to replace their natural talent and abilities, but the entire defensive scheme is structured around their specific skillsets. You can't take gears off a bike and expect the wheels to turn, and that's what happened the last two nights with the Raptors bleeding 129 and 132 points in two nights. Sure, the Celtics had some superstar contributions from Jayson Tatum in the second half, but the Raptors' overall team defense just wasn't good enough.
Four — Lopsided: The Raptors rained 21 threes, but even that isn't enough to overcome a 40-17 disparity in free-throw attempts. There's no doubt the Raptors got sloppy at times and had to concede fouls because they were late in rotation, or a step out of rhythm, but the difference was both noticeable and frustrating to watch. Lowry was bowled over by Tatum on a cut, where Tatum put his shoulder through Lowry's chest on a drive, and even after review the foul was still given to Lowry. Then in the fourth quarter, the officials missed Chris Boucher being hacked both at the basket and on his three-point shot (which nearly mangled his finger after Tatum's aggressive closeout), and they also missed Kemba Walker moving into the path of Norman Powell who was whistled for a charge driving baseline. On the other end, any time Tatum or Jaylen Brown drew a hint of contact on their way to the basket, it was given as a foul. Brown shot 16 free throws on a night where he was 4-of-11, which was just one fewer than the Raptors had as a team.
Five — Flow: Boucher is at his best when he is playing on instinct. He didn't hesitate on launching contested threes because he's the one that blocks threes, not the other way around, and a pair of early makes got him going. Boucher rode out the wave from there, and did a great job of reading the defense to get open en route to a career-high 30 points. When the defense sagged back to deny the rim, Boucher popped behind the arc and fired his slingshot three. When the Celtics were up, Boucher dove hard to the basket for dunks before help defenders could rotate over. And when the defense was lost in rotation, Boucher gambled wisely on collecting putbacks and sneaking unnoticed through the gaps for easy layups. The only thing holding Boucher back is his defense. The Celtics went at him every trip down in the fourth quarter, and it's never a good sign if the offense singles you out. Boucher's length can be neutralized by physicality, and big wings like Tatum and Brown punished that weakness.
Six — Confidence: It was never quite clear why Stanley Johnson was taken out of the rotation after some very promising shifts early in the season. There were times where Johnson regressed and was pressing as he did last season, but that's to be expected when minutes fluctuate. The best version of Johnson showed up tonight, particularly in the fourth quarter where he drained four triples to keep the Raptors in the hunt. Johnson's on-ball defense was stingy against both Brown and Tatum, and that alone should make him a valuable bench piece. Johnson does have some instances where he steps over the line with his physicality, which will often saddle him with early foul trouble, but there's also something to be said about setting the tone as a defender.
Seven — Rhythm: Terence Davis is also like Boucher in that he's at his best when he plays on instinct. Davis has been largely down this entire season, and most of his mistakes come from trying to do too much on both ends of the floor. But it's also clear that he can be an effective finisher if he stays within his role. He's a decent catch-and-shoot player, can finish around the basket off cuts, and has worked on a stepback jumper that can be used in moderation. Davis had a half-dozen games like this last season, which was good enough to qualify for Second Team All-Rookie, and it's really on him to find that consistency. What the Raptors lack most at the moment is a playmaker off the bench, which is why Davis got so many chances even on nights when he was struggling.
Eight — Growing: Norman Powell is already playing at a career level, but there is still another level for him to reach. Powell is absolutely money when he is finishing the play, whether that is on catch-and-shoots, or slashing to the basket off a cut or in transition. But what separates great finishers from great scorers is the ability to create for yourself. That's the difference between Powell versus Brown or Tatum. If you're only relying on others to set you up, then a good defense with a smart coach can usually neutralize you. Powell should get more reps working in the pick-and-roll and even occasionally in the post just to see if he can improve his offense even further. Adding that element of shot creation would make Powell the deadliest scorer on the team. That, and his defense could stand to improve, although it's clear that being a focal point on offense comes with concessions.
Nine — Solid: It hasn't been easy and it rarely looks pretty, but Lowry is starting to establish some pick-and-roll chemistry with Aron Baynes. The two have connected on at least a half-dozen plays in the last two games, which wouldn't be that notable when Serge Ibaka was paired with Lowry, but it's also a huge improvement from the start of the season. Baynes can usually seal his man after setting the screen, and Lowry is finding the angles to feed him down low for his sweeping hook finishes. It would still be nice if Baynes could regain the touch on his three-point shot, as he still isn't skilled enough to be a main feature of the offense, and to his credit he has made a three in five straight games. The issue is teams just don't guard him, and that allows centers to camp out in the lane.
Ten — Weary: The All-Star break is coming at the right time for the Raptors. Hopefully these next seven days will allow the team to regroup for a solid run in the second half of the season. The healthiest teams are generally the ones that finish at the top of the conference, and the Raptors haven't had their full complement of players since the first month of the season. Seven teams in the East are within two games of .500, and it would just take a short winning streak for the Raptors to be back in the mix. It remains uncertain as to what the Raptors will do at the trade deadline, given that there are clear needs at center and a bench playmaker, but there is enough fight and talent within this group that is deserving of some reinforcement.
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