Overpowered by Tatum and Brown in third quarter, Raptors fall to win-hungry Celtics


Three years ago the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics played a seven-game slugfest of a second-round series that ended with the Raptors finally getting to leave the bubble in Orlando, ending a spirited if ultimately star-crossed defense of their 2019 title.

In the seasons since, the Raptors fortunes have fluctuated wildly: from the ‘Tampa Tank’ in 2020-21 that was miserable in every way other than the opportunity to draft Scottie Barnes, or the second-half surge last year where the Raptors exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectations and won 48 games and made a not embarrassing first-round exit at the hands of the favoured Philadelphia 76ers.

This year?

We still don’t know. The Raptors have looked both lethal and hopeless in equal measure as they tumble along at .500 or so. It’s a season that is still taking shape, and a future that’s very much still being evaluated.

Which made Monday’s first visit by the Celtics especially interesting. Boston went on to their third Eastern Conference Finals in four years in 2020, took a step back the following year, and last year went to their first Finals since Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart became their identifiable core.

This season? They arrived in Toronto as unquestionably the best team in the NBA to this point of the season, bolstered by some quality additions around the periphery and on pace to set a record for offensive efficiency, a season after they laid claim to one the best defensive performances in the second half of last season.

There are tests and exams during an NBA season, for the Raptors, desperate to gain some traction to this point in the schedule, the Celtics were the latter.

“For sure it’s a measurement game,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think we totally need to see where we are with these guys. They’re obviously the best team in the league right now, and record and metrics and numbers and historic this and historic that at both ends, and they’re playing really good. I think we need to see where we are at.”

Well, after a week in which the Raptors got thumped on the road by New Orleans and Brooklyn, and fell 116-110 at home to a shorthanded Celtics team playing for the second time in two nights, the answer might be: not particularly close to where they want to be, which is in the mix for the top teams in the East.

Boston improved to 20-5 and Toronto fell to 12-12 with the red-hot Los Angeles Lakers due in town on Wednesday. The Celtics got 31 points and 12 rebounds from Tatum and 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists from Brown. Pascal Siakam led Toronto with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while Scottie Barnes ended with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The Celtics shot 13-of-36 from three while Toronto converted 10-of-28 chances, though Fred VanVleet was 1-of-6. Gary Trent Jr. scored 20 points off the bench was 3-of-3 from deep; the Celtics made just enough plays to see them through.

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With the Raptors on a 2-on-1 and O.G Anunoby with a chance to cut what had been a nine-point Boston lead to seven, Marcus Smart – the reigning defensive player of the year – stripped Anunoby cleanly on his gather and then pushed the ball to the frontcourt where Tatum rose up for a big three to put Boston up 12 again with 3:29 left. A three from Gary Trent Jr. and a three-point play by Scottie Barnes gave the Raptors hope, but they couldn’t take advantage.

Fred VanVleet missed a wide-open triple that would have cut the lead to three; Pascal Siakam missed a crucial free throw and Anunoby let a pass from Barnes slip through his hands and into the crowd with 50.9 seconds left, wasting another possession. It wasn’t the Raptors defence that hurt them against the Celtics juggernaut, it was their inability to make or finish plays at the other end.

For the Celtics of course, it was just another game, one they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and without two starters (Al Horford, 36, who was resting and Robert Williams, who is injured and hasn’t played yet this season) and a key reserve (Malcolm Brodgon; illness) and against the backdrop of: the only thing that matters this season is to return to the finals and win a championship.

“We look at it [this] as the next game on the schedule,” said Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla. “I look at it as we have to get better from the things that we learned yesterday … I look at the challenge that Toronto presents in their physicality and their active hands and their ability to turn you over and their ability to be physical on the offensive end. So I think each game presents its own challenges.”

Not quote “one of 82”, but the Celtics have earned the right to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

The Raptors first order of business was to somehow slow down a Celtics offense with a league-leading and potentially record-setting 120.7 points per 100 possessions and features a pair of All-NBA-level wings that can collapse defences like wet paper in Tatum and Brown surrounded by seven role players shooting 40 per cent from three or better.

“It’s a lot of super individual talent,” said Nurse. “A lot of them can take it off the bounce and put you in the front of the basket. If they’re beating you off the dribble and you help, they find the right guys. They’re really killing people from behind the lines. It’s a tremendous challenge for our guys, individually, guarding their matchup, and then trying to figure out help and then trying to figure out how to defend (the next guy).”

The Raptors did a respectable job. They led Boston 19-18 with 3:30 left in first quarter as Boston started just 1-of-7 from three as the Raptors threw themselves into shot contests and made the Celtics work for what they got. But the Celtics got  three quick triples from Grant Williams, Tatum and Sam Hauser to open up a nine-point gap before Gary Trent Jr. and Thad Young responded with threes of their own to keep in touch as Boston led 27-25 after the first quarter.

The Raptors kept at it. They were aggressive on the Celtics stars: Tatum was harassed into three first-half turnovers and Brown will see O.G. Anunoby in his dreams, but Toronto didn’t lose everyone else in the shuffle of traps and doubles. Offensively Toronto was relying on Siakam to help in the halfcourt and scored 16 fastbreak points, several breakouts coming off Celtics turnovers. The Raptors were up nine with 2:53 left in the first half before Boston pushed back with a driving dunk by veteran Blake Griffin who spun a flailing Scottie Barnes around with a pump fake and drew a foul, followed by a Tatum triple to cut the Raptors lead to 62-56 at half.

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But in the third quarter the Celtics stepped on the gas and in particular Tatum – who came into the game averaging 30.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists while putting himself in the heart of the MVP discussion – broke out for 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the period. He was helped by Marcus Smart, the hard-nosed point guard, who knocked in a pair of threes on his way to eight points and four assists in the quarter. Each were prominent in a 23-7 run that turned an eight-point Raptors lead into an eight-point deficit midway through third before Boston took a 91-80 lead into the fourth.

The Raptors couldn’t reel them in from there, with each team playing largely to form to this point of the season.

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