After five days off, the Toronto Raptors just didn’t have it on Sunday. The shots didn’t fall, the defense wasn’t as sharp as it’s consistently been throughout this season, and both ends of the floor were tied together in a wire-to-wire 112-94 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
This has been a difficult and unprecedented week for the defending champs. After completing the first playoff series sweep in franchise history, the Raptors dealt with anguish and frustration in the wake of another Black man being shot by police, hinting at the idea of a player strike 24 hours before the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play Game 5 of their first-round series. A three-day break from basketball produced additional commitments from the league and its players toward improving racial equality. But getting back to a postseason mindset was not easy.
“We all felt that emotionally,” Kyle Lowry said Sunday. “It hit us hard. Today we just didn’t play well.”
The Raptors missed some shots that they were making in the first round. They made defensive mistakes that cost them. But the Celtics were in the same situation in regard to the week’s events. They executed better on Sunday, and they’re now 4-1 against Raptors this season, including two convincing wins in Orlando.
And after the second of those defeats, the Raptors weren’t making excuses.
“It’s basketball,” Pascal Siakam said. “You are out there, you play. This is something that we love to do, have been doing it for a while. Obviously it’s tough and you don’t want to minimize the things that’s going on. But once we step on the floor it’s time to play and we’ve got to do our best.”
They were not at their best in Game 1. But there are reasons on both ends of the floor to believe why this is also a bad matchup for the champs.
Offense — Unable to run
But they haven’t been able to run against the Celtics. Their five games against Boston account for five of the 20 times this season in which the Raptors have been held to 13 or fewer fast break points. In Game 1 on Sunday, they had just seven.
League-wide, effective field goal percentage is highest in the first six seconds of the shot clock. In the regular season, the Raptors had the league’s sixth-biggest differential between their effective field goal percentage in the first six seconds (61.7%, fifth) and their effective field goal percentage thereafter (51.6%, 19th).
Siakam was the primary example of the Raptors’ transition-vs.-half-court dichotomy, with a differential (65.7% vs. 47.4%) more than double the league average. And on Sunday, he didn’t get any shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, finishing with 13 points on 5-for-16 from the floor.
Eleven of Siakam’s 16 shot’s came in the paint, but only two of those 11 came in the restricted area, and there’s a big difference between those and shots that come from six or seven feet away (and are generally contested). The All-Star had a couple of post-up scores (one, two) against Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown midway through the third quarter, but those were followed by a pair of awkward and off-balance misses (one, two) against Semi Ojeleye.
“I think I got to where I wanted to,” Siakam said. “I’ve just got to finish some of the shots that I took.”
Siakam isn’t the only Raptor who struggled on Sunday. After averaging 21.3 points on an effective field goal percentage of 70% in the first round, Fred VanVleet shot 3-for-16 in Game 1 of the conference semis. But the guard is going to generate his own looks off the dribble more than Siakam, who’s postseason effective field goal percentage of 43.2% ranks 52nd among 56 players with at least 50 field goal attempts.
To help him break out, the Raptors will have to see if they can give Siakam more space to operate in Game 2.
“I think we’ll always look at trying to get him involved in about all areas,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “as a post-up player, as a jump shooter, as a handler in the screen-and-roll, as a setter in the screen-and-roll. I think we’ve got to mix it up and vary it, even some isolations on top, isos on the side, hopefully get him involved in the transition game a little bit as well.”
The Celtics won’t make the transition game come easy, though.
“They’re getting a lot of bodies back, really quickly and really well,” Nurse said. “Even on turnovers, just change of possession, whether it’s a defensive rebound or a turnover, they’re getting a lot of bodies back.”
Defense — Don’t leave the corner
There have been 13 instances of a team making 10 or more corner 3s in a game this season. Two of those 13 have been Boston against Toronto in Orlando. The Celtics were 10-for-15 from the corners in their Aug. 7 (wire-to-wire) seeding-game win, and they were 10-for-15 from the corners again on Sunday.
The Raptors were 2-for-6 from the corners, so they were outscored 30-6 on corner 3s and were a plus-6 from elsewhere on the floor.
“There was some mistakes that we made to give some of those up,” Nurse said. “There was a couple of really blatant ones. There was a couple where guys were bottled up and we just ran to double-team for some reason, and left the corner 3 guy out there.”
One of those breakdowns came from VanVleet, leaving Brad Wanamaker to double Jayson Tatum and holding the double-team after Tatum had picked up his dribble. There were additional issues with Siakam leaving his man in the corner (both on the weak side and the strong side) to zone up (both in and outside the paint)…
The Raptors are in their 2-3 zone on the first of those possessions, when the Celtics did a good job of getting into the paint and collapsing the zone, with Kemba Walker finding the relocated Jaylen Brown in the corner. But Toronto is playing man-to-man on the other three possessions, with Siakam having little regard for Marcus Smart in the corner.
Smart was just a 33% shooter (21-for-63) from the corners in the regular season and a team shooting 10-for-15 from any spot outside of five feet is not sustainable. But even if you ignore the success rate, 15 corner 3-point attempts is not a good number for the defense.
The Raptors allowed a league-high 4.7 corner 3s per game in the regular season (no other team allowed more than 3.6). Not only was the percentage of their opponents’ shots that came from 3-point range (44%) the league’s highest rate, the percentage of their opponents’ 3-point attempts that came from the corners (32%) was also the league’s highest rate. They had the league’s second-ranked defense because they protected the paint and forced turnovers, but they have a weak spot on that end of the floor.
The Celtics know this, they know that the Raptors are aggressive on the ball, and they know where to look for the open man.
“I know they ran some stuff to set up some of the corner 3 stuff,” Nurse said, “And not only did it get them the shot, they were hittin’ ’em in the heart.”
The Raptors can certainly clean up a few of those defensive mistakes in Game 2 on Tuesday (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). On the same end of the floor, the Celtics will look to clean up their turnovers. They committed 23 in Game 1, with 10 of the 21 being live balls.
Nurse, of course, sees those as lost opportunites to run. Credit Boston for stifling the Toronto transition game, but that doesn’t mean the Raptors will stop trying to get easy baskets early in the clock.
“When you want to play in transition,” Nurse said, “you got to run a little harder, and push the ball a little better, and throw it ahead a little bit more, and be just a little bit more aggressive.”
In their half-court offense, the Raptors could try some inverted pick-and-rolls in an effort to get Walker switched onto Siakam, though Boston has been very good at scrambling out of bad matchups.
It’s probably too early for a lineup change, even though the Toronto starters were outscored by 11 points in less than 15 minutes. Nurse played Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together for almost nine minutes (their fourth highest total of the season) in Game 1, but the Raptors were unable to punish the Celtics on the glass, registering just seven offensive rebounds, despite missing 53 shots.
Before trying a lineup change, Nurse will probably want to see how his team plays with more energy than they had in Game 1
“I don’t really know what to say about characterizing that game as far as adjustments and stuff go,” Nurse said. “Obviously we were not ourselves and I think more we are going to have to play a lot better, especially at the offensive end.”
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