Raptors v Celtics - Game 5 Preview
As this series unfolds, the parallels to the past are piling up. Four games into their East Semifinal battle with the Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors have duplicated what they did a year ago in the Conference Final against Milwaukee, erasing a 0-2 deficit. Nick Nurse acknowledges the similarities but said on Sunday that he’s really not drawing on last year’s success to drive the team forward in the present.
“I haven’t given it any thought until this moment,” Nurse said when the inevitable was brought to his attention.
“I don't really give it that much thought. (The) ‘we've been here before’ kind of talk doesn't really...if that helps someone's psyche to say that you've been here before or it feels like it did before, then fine. I just really try to operate with what's happening now. I know we're in a great series here against a really tough team and there's a lot of work to do yet and I'm just trying to do that work.”
In terms of work, the Raptors are halfway there. The desperation they played these last two games with might shift to a go-for-the-jugular mode, knowing how important it is to gain control in the series and that the winner of Monday’s game will have a chance to close it out in Game 6 on Wednesday. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here are a few things the Raptors will be looking at to take the series lead in Game 5.
Clamping down on a ton of talent
Kyle Lowry was asked after the Game 4 win about three-point shooting and its role in this series. His answer was simple but it spoke volumes.
“It’s about defence,” he said.
The Game 4 win was the first time the Raptors have held the Celtics under 100 points in this series. Jayson Tatum still got his, with 24 points and 10 rebounds, but his fellow stars were stymied most of the night. Kemba Walker had 15 points and eight assists and Jaylen Brown had 14 points on 4-18 shooting. You won’t stop all of them, but Game 4 was the best example yet of the Raptors limiting what Boston’s star players can do and making them really work for what they get.
“It presents a lot of problems when there are that many guys that can score the way they do,” Nurse said.
“We're just trying to make things as difficult as we can on all of them. We’re trying to work hard and we're trying to pressure the ball. We're trying to provide help and we're trying to show them different looks and different matchups and things to try to keep some rhythm in our favour.”
Gasol’s non-scoring contributions (and maybe getting him going a little)
Averaging just 3.5 points in this series, Marc Gasol hasn’t been able to contribute offensively the way that he wants to. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t found other ways to provide value for his team.
“I think he was for whatever reason not really feeling his game the first couple of games,” Nurse said of his centre.
“I felt the last two games, actually, he looked like he was good with the ball. He looked like he was confident in his decision to shoot even though he didn't get much out of it. He looked like the facilitator that we're used to him being.
“I feel like he made really good decisions (in Game 4). He's still rolling effectively too, a lot more than normal. I feel like he's found his game a little bit in the last couple.”
A three-pointer or two -- Gasol is 0-9 from deep in the series -- would be a welcome addition to a team that’s improved in that area the last two games but still wants to be better.
Before Game 4, Nurse spoke about needing a wildcard off the bench in this series. Serge Ibaka’s performance -- 18 points, seven rebounds and a block -- wasn’t a surprise by any means, but it was a key in their success on Saturday. Norm Powell added five points off the bench and Matt Thomas was the only other guy to see any minutes in Game 4.
Rotations pare down in the playoffs, but Nurse does have options on his bench. Terrence Davis and Chris Boucher haven’t seen the floor since Game 2 but both have made big contributions this year when they’ve gotten the opportunity. The tightness of the game and how well the heavy rotation guys are playing will likely dictate those opportunities, but they could be that x-factor in the right circumstances.
Squeezing in breaks through heavy minutes
Through four games, Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Siakam are over the 160-minute mark. The players don’t have an issue with it. VanVleet shrugged off the heavy minutes on Saturday night, saying there’s no tomorrow right now, that the team needs everything they have. Siakam said after Game 4 that he’d play 1,000 minutes if he needed to.
For his part, Nurse has tried to use stoppages in play to his team’s advantage.
“You’ve got to play this somewhat situationally,” he said. “Those guys that we didn't sub much (in Game 4), they were all playing very, very well and I thought that was the appropriate amount of breaks in the game. There seemed to be lots of time outs, there were reviews, there were challenges. There seemed to be some built-in rest time that didn't have to do with the game going up and down.”
To paraphrase VanVleet’s description of Game 4, it may have been a little ugly and mucky at times for Siakam, but he’s been working his way back to his all-star self through these last two wins.
The three-point shooting isn’t there yet -- he hasn’t shot better than 25 per cent from deep yet -- but his production and comfort level are coming back. His 23 points and 11 boards were series highs and Nurse said he was happy with the confidence that Siakam played with, even with the three-point shooting numbers still low.
“I believe in his mechanics and I believe in his percentages over the long haul,” Nurse said.
“What I like is the demeanour of which he's taking them and how he's reacting to the result, which is pretty level headed.”