Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 100-93 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One — Momentum: The Raptors rode the excitement of their buzzer-beating win in Game 3 to a near wire-to-wire win over the Celtics. Toronto’s defense showed no signs of letting up, as it held a top-five offense in check for the third-straight game. Granted, the Celtics are pretty decent on defense themselves which is how they stayed close despite shooting an abysmal 7-of-35 from deep, but the pressure is mounting. Toronto’s amorphous defense adapts and gradually constricts opponents over the course of a series, just like how it gradually solved Milwaukee after being in a 0-2 hole last season. Boston will shoot better than it did tonight, but they won’t get many easy looks.
Two — Fearless: Kyle Lowry continues to set the tone, as he led the way with an exhaustive 22-point, 11-rebound, 7-assist performance. Similar to Game 3, Lowry opened the game aggressive by attacking the rim and getting six free-throw attempts in the first six minutes, while also getting a midrange jumper and a three to fall. Lowry’s ability to create in the pick-and-roll is the lifeline of Toronto’s offense, and Boston is strangely ill-equipped to guard him. The issue is that there is only one Marcus Smart on the perimeter, and he needs to split his time between Lowry and Fred VanVleet, while also taking shifts on Pascal Siakam. So whenever Kemba Walker is involved, Lowry will capitalize. And even if Boston changes the matchup, that advantage still exists elsewhere.
Three — Sacrifice: Not only is Lowry running the offense, but he is also captaining the defense. Lowry hit the deck repeatedly tonight, taking two charges (on Walker and Jaylen Brown), breaking up a lob to a center as one of his two steals, but he also had the play of the night by diving across the deck to deflect an errant pass off Tatum to force a jumpball. Despite being shorter and farther from the play, Lowry got his hand to the ball first before checking Tatum into the scorer’s table. Even though Boston retained possession on the ensuing jumpball, that told the story of the game. Lowry wanted it more than anyone else in the building, and that’s the leadership behind Toronto’s last seven runs to the playoffs.
Four — Freer: It’s coming along slowly, but Fred VanVleet is finding his rhythm. VanVleet still shot 6-of-19 largely on account of his inability to finish in the paint, but his reads are getting better. He’s not relying so much on the pull-up three for his offense, but instead thriving without the ball in his hands. With Lowry and Siakam playing better on offense, that allows VanVleet to set up away from the play and to pick his spots. Three of his five triples came as a product of VanVleet staying active while Boston’s defense was loading up elsewhere, and stepping into those gaps to launch from three. His drives are starting to improve as well, except the call at the rim is favoring the defense despite VanVleet always drawing contact. Even though those shots are low-percentage looks without the foul call, the Raptors need VanVleet’s drives to open up chances for his teammates.
Five — Attrition: Maybe it was just a product of shooting 20 percent from downtown, but the Celtics looked lethargic and exhausted. Toronto scored 24 points off its eight offensive rebounds, and won most of the 50-50 battles. Celtics coach Brad Stevens shortened his rotation, playing Tatum, Smart, and Walker above 40 minutes, and it wore on them by the end. Most of Boston’s missed threes were short, it missed seven free throws including back-to-back bricks by a lethal shooter in Tatum and a split pair from Daniel Theis in the final minutes. Toronto’s players are used to playing at all-out intensity for long periods, a skill honed in last year’s championship run, and that’s working in their favor in this series.
Six — Boost: The rest of Toronto’s bench is struggling, but Serge Ibaka is making up for it on his own. Ibaka was red-hot from deep to start, connecting on a perfect four-of-four from deep while also being a factor on the offensive glass. His willingness to score really changes the complexion of Toronto’s offense where Boston’s defense can’t load up on Toronto’s guards because Ibaka can and will punish them when left open. Ibaka’s defensive energy is also picking up, as he had an emphatic block at the rim against Theis in the second quarter while Toronto stretched their lead. Ibaka has scored at least 15 points in three games this series, and it must be tempting for the Celtics to change their strategy. Of course, if that happens, life just gets easier for Toronto’s guards, so maybe they don’t.
Seven — Reverse: The Raptors need to find a way to get Pascal Siakam going early. The trend in all four games has been that Siakam struggles early, before waking up in the second half. Siakam didn’t have a basket in the first half of Game 3, only to respond with 14 points after halftime. Tonight, he scored nine in the first half, then 14 points thereon. He seems to test his range more willingly early on, before settling into what he does best around the rim. Still, this was a positive development for Siakam despite the 2-of-13 shooting from three. Siakam scored 14 points in the paint and looked much more steady going up against Brown, where instead of barging inside and yelping for the call, Siakam went straight up and just shot over top of Brown, or drove straight through him when he was in foul trouble.
Eight — Squirmy: The biggest challenge now is to stop Walker, who continues to give Toronto problems in the pick-and-roll. Tatum is a lethal scorer too, and gets to the rim more efficiently, but the Raptors can live with a 20-point performance from him if it’s mostly difficult jumpers instead of conceding 14 foul shots. What’s tricky about Walker is that he always demands a double team off the high screen, and he is smart enough to keep his dribble alive and probe the defense before finding gaps. Those drives are generally more manageable if Ibaka or Marc Gasol aren’t sucked into the play, where instead a wing player goes out to help or even switch on the play.
Nine — Advantage: What helps in that regard is that Boston has several players that don’t need to be guarded. Nick Nurse smartly had his forwards in Siakam and O.G. Anunoby guarding the centers in the screen for Walker, and instead stashing his centers on the likes of Grant Williams or Semi Ojeleye, who aren’t threats to score even if they are open. Even if Toronto’s centers get sucked into the play, there is still the option to trap and force Walker to give up the ball, because the Raptors will live with Williams or Ojeleye making a play. This is where the Celtics feel the absence of Gordon Hayward, who would otherwise be a lethal option in these situations if not for a severely sprained ankle that will keep him out of the series. Stevens could counter with his only scoring center in Enes Kanter, but he was such a disaster on defense in his short stint in Game 3 that Stevens stapled him back to the bench.
Ten — Tireless: Anunoby remains rock-steady on both ends, as he chipped in with 11 points, three assists and two blocks in 35 minutes. Anunoby hit a contested three over Brown in the exact same spot as his game-winner on Thursday, and remains impactful on offense despite rarely having a play called for him. Anunoby is finding success driving the ball and getting to the rim, where he is either getting fouled or setting up a chance for his teammates to crash the glass. And on the other end, Anunoby remains the best one-on-one defender in the team as neither Brown nor Tatum wants to take him on.
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