The Toronto Raptors need to figure it out, and it comprises of a few different things right now.
After falling 95-94 to the Kyrie Irving-less Boston Celtics on the road on Sunday, the Raptors are now 0-4 against the upper echelon of the league (Wizards, Warriors, Spurs), with a meeting against a West-best Houston Rockets (11-3) awaiting them next on Tuesday.
What will be most concerning for the coaching staff is the fact that the game was there to be had in each of those fourth quarters, but yet were unable to come through in any of them. DeMar DeRozan has missed some big shots in isolation, Kyle Lowry has been passive for most of this season, and Dwane Casey is still sorting through his rotation.
This Sunday afternoon was not much different.
With time on the clock and the Raptors trailing by one, DeRozan took his time to ensure it was the final possession and shot a midrange jumper after creating some separation from Jaylen Brown. The shot was short and came off the front rim, but despite Serge Ibaka appearing to be in position for a rebound and put-back, he failed to secure it and the game was lost.
There will be questions asked of Casey with regards to the late-game offence, as the team ran multiple sets to isolate their all-star shooting guard, who finished 2-for-5 in the fourth quarter.
One of the strategic options down the stretch for coaches against a defence with hands as long and active as Boston’s, and in a game where your team has coughed up the rock 17 times, is to protect the ball. Two things that absolutely kill a team in late-game scenarios are turnovers and opponent points in transition.
Putting the ball in the hands of your best scorer often eradicates both those possibilities. After DeRozan checked in with 5:43 remaining in the final frame, the Raptors turned the ball over once — DeRozan had the ball taken away from him by Al Horford with under two minutes remaining. Lowry was the only other Raptor to attempt a field-goal (1-for-2).
In a game of trade-offs, Casey chose against a democratic offence, whose randomness presents arguably more defensive challenges, but comes with the higher risk of turnovers, for the peace of mind of getting shots off and giving his defence a chance to get set.
The Celtics scored 18 points off Raptors turnovers for the game, but only two came in the fourth quarter. The Raptors stagnant offense had zero assists despite turning the ball over only twice, compared to eight assists and four turnovers for the Celtics as they trusted each other in the absence of their go-to man.
History tells us that this is how Casey likes to operate, but perhaps all the talk of a culture change has created a different sense of expectation.
One decision that paid dividends today was the preference for Lucas Nogueira ahead of Jakob Poeltl. Despite a scoreless afternoon, the Brazilian finished with seven rebounds and four blocks. The Celtics are imposing at the center position with Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, and Casey’s line of thinking to counter them with Nogueira’s length paid dividends. He finished a +9 in 19 minutes, and was a reassuring presence in the middle, unlike the starting frontline.
The Celtics rebounded a third of the misses available to them, a criminal amount under any premise, but especially when considering the Raptors’ glut of bigs. In a game where the Raptors shot better from the field, from three, and made more free-throws, taking 18 fewer shots came back to haunt them.
After arguably his best performance of the young season against New Orleans on Friday, Ibaka put up a complete dud with a team-worst -14 in his 30 minutes of action. It’s a bit concerning that he hasn’t been able to string together multiple good games together thus far, and needs to find a way to do so if this team is indeed going to start clicking on a consistent basis.
He was very good for the Raptors on both ends after the all-star break last season, when he played second banana to DeRozan with Lowry out, so it makes one wonder if the early start to the season has found the veteran short on fitness and that it’s just a matter of time till he hits his stride.
For the Celtics, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier more than made up for the absence of Irving, combining for 30 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds, three steals, and just three turnovers. Despite just three rebounds, the 21 rebounds and four assists Al Horford provided in his return from a concussion were immense as Boston struggled to score in his absence.
For all the injuries the Celtics have dealt with, Toronto were dealt a blow of their own as Norman Powell left the game with a right hip pointer. Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun reported that he was seen leaving the arena on crutches, and with the Raptors recalling Alfonzo McKinnie from the Raptors 905, it’s likely that Powell will be unavailable for at least the game against the Rockets on Tuesday.
2017 No.3 overall pick Jayson Tatum finished with 13 points and seven rebounds to continue his strong rookie campaign.