The Raptors beat the Celtics 113-101 in a matchup between what clearly looked like the 2 best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics held the lead for most of the first half, but after a slow first quarter the Raptors offense couldn't be stopped. The Raptors scored 95 of their points in the final 3 quarters, with their lowest scoring total from those quarters being 31 points. They took the lead 74-72 with 4:18 left in the 3rd quarter and Toronto held the lead for all but 11 seconds from that point on. The Celtics defense was not up to par for them, giving multiple free runs to the hoop and even leaving players completely uncovered at times during the game leading to easy layups. They even left Kawhi Leonard uncovered at one point, but were spared when Kawhi lost the ball out of bounds. These ugly blown assignments aren't typical of a Brad Stevens coached team and are a clear sign of just how much work the Celtics have left to do to improve this year.
Here are just 2 of the free runs to the hoop allowed by the Celtics:
Both cases of no rim protection by the Celtics and one play in which a Raptor goes completely uncovered all the way to the rim. One of the main reasons the Celtics were #1 in team defensive rating last year was the play of Aron Baynes. Baynes himself was #1 among players who played at least 42 games in defensive rating and his rim protection and defensive awareness would have surely helped the Celtics on these two plays. Many wondered whether one of the Celtics five stars (Irving, Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and Horford) would have to come off the bench this season so Baynes could start and if the defense continue to look like it did last night than that might be the case after all.
The offensive end for the Celtics wasn't sharp either. They had 3 straight turnovers in the first few minutes of the game, which was just a sign of the sloppy play to come. The Celtics ended up shooting just 40.4% from the field on the night which included poor shooting performances from Jayson Tatum (6/16), Aron Baynes (2/8), Terry Rozier (2/7), and Marcus Smart (1/6). One performance that will sadly go overlooked is that of Al Horford, who finished 1 assist shy of a triple double. For Toronto, Kawhi Leonard finished with 31 points on 10/25 shooting. Toronto went on a 10-0 run in the final 2:30 of the game, emphasizing just how much better they were on both ends of the floor than the Celtics last night.
The Raptors sent multiple double teams at Celtics players throughout the night and executed perfect rotations to close out on the open shooters off of those double teams, frustrating the Celtics offensively. It was a showcase of just how good Toronto's defense can be this season. All the players in their rotation, outside of perhaps Jonas Valanciunas and Fred Van Fleet, are strong and versatile defenders and they will frustrate teams all season with their play on that end.
Toronto proved themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference and halted the Celtics national coronation as the new dominant team in the East. These two teams could certainly deliver a spectacular playoff series. It was a tough pull for the Celtics to get both the Sixers and Raptors right out of the gate while they're still trying to figure out how they want to play with their collection of talent and aren't even quite sure who their first, second, and third scoring options are yet, but it could be seen as a blessing in disguise. Ultimately all that matters is how you match up against the league's best teams and players and coaches being able to analyze their performance against those teams should only help them better understand how and where they need to improve if they expect to be in the NBA Finals this season. It seems the Celtics lack a coherent plan of who they want to run their offense through at almost every point of the game with all the scoring options they have and until they figure out who that player is on a rotation to rotation basis, they will continue to struggle on that end of the floor. Right now, the Celtics aren't as good as they've been in the previous two seasons. Hopefully their growing pains are soon over.
The Celtics play again tonight in New York against the Knicks. One thing to watch for: Madison Square Garden's reception for Kyrie Irving. Despite Irving's recent commitment to the Celtics, it appears most Knicks fans aren't giving up on their dreams of Kyrie in New York and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself with the crowd.
Photo: (Frank Gunn - The Canadian Press via AP)