The Raptors entered Friday as perhaps the most impressive team of the NBA’s Orlando restart. They were healthy, undefeated, and brimming with confidence.
By the fourth quarter of this game, though, most of the starters on both teams were watching from the bench, because the Celtics had throttled Toronto so thoroughly that there was no reason to continue. Boston’s 122-100 victory over the defending champions was even more thorough than that score makes it look. It led by as many as 40 points in its most complete performance of the season.
Jaylen Brown had 20 points to lead seven Boston players in double figures in scoring. Daniel Theis had 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Observations from the game:
▪ This game won’t mean much in the standings. The Celtics will have to win their last three games and the Raptors will have to lose their last four for Boston to vault into the No. 2 spot. That’s not happening. But there is a very good chance that these teams will meet in the second round of the playoffs, and the Celtics have struggled against the Raptors over the years. I don’t think this game will really damage the psyche of the Raptors, but it should be a confidence boost for the Celtics. They’ll remember that they rocked the defending NBA champions on this same neutral setting with no fans. They’ll remember what worked.
▪ In his television interview before tip-off, coach Brad Stevens emphasized the importance of quick, crisp passing rather than over-dribbling. Just one minute into the game, the Celtics showed that they’d heeded their coach’s message. On one poetic possession, they had seven passes in just 14 seconds — and that included dribbling the ball up the court — before finishing it off with a Theis 3-point play. That set the tone. The ball movement was excellent throughout the game.
“When the ball doesn’t stick, we’re pretty good,” Stevens said. “We really had a large emphasis on that.”
Added Jayson Tatum: “I think that’s who we should be. We’ve got so many talented guys on this team, especially on the offensive end. When we move the ball like that I think we’re really, really hard to guard.”
▪ The Raptors were scoreless for the first 3 minutes, 22 seconds and had just 2 points at the six-minute mark. Often, slow starts like that are forgotten after one scoring spree. But it never came for Toronto. The Raptors missed plenty of open looks, but the Celtics generally made life difficult for them by challenging shots, switching promptly on screens and, most importantly, getting back on defense. The Raptors are one of the more dangerous transition teams in the NBA, and the Celtics held them to 13 fast-break points.
“I think we played physical,” Theis said. “We started from the first second we played defense, we didn’t give up any easy layups, any open looks. So that’s the way we have to play every game.”
▪ Midway through the first quarter Kemba Walker crumpled to the floor and plenty of fans probably feared the worst. But it turned out he had just taken a shot to the stomach. The more anxious moment for the Celtics probably came moments later, when he chased a loose ball out of bounds and had to hurdle a barrier before having a hard landing on his left knee. He was fine.
▪ Robert Williams rode the momentum from his strong game against the Nets and was Boston’s first big man off the bench Friday. Once again, he provided meaningful, productive minutes, and this time they came against a worthy opponent. He deflected a pass and forced a shot-clock violation on his first defensive possession, then received a feed from Marcus Smart for a dunk. Smart might be Boston’s most gifted passer, and he and Williams appear to have good chemistry.
Williams did not register a block, but he changed so many shots after Raptors waded into the paint. Yes, Enes Kanter is a good offensive rebounder and finisher, but there’s no question that Williams gives the team a different dimension. His solid play has been the most promising development in the bubble so far.
“I thought even on the ones they made, when Robert was in pick and roll, he kept [them] in front, used his length, and challenged,” Stevens said. “If he does that, that’s great. Very active, rebounded well, he was a threat at the rim again. He did a good job.”
▪ Tatum had a rocky end to the first quarter. The Celtics had a chance to hold the ball for the last shot, but Tatum fired up a slightly contested 3-pointer with about eight seconds remaining. It was too early, and the shot missed, and then he committed a goaltending violation as Toronto raced the other way.
▪ Raptors coach Nick Nurse used his lone challenge in a bit of an unusual spot. In the second quarter, Fred VanVleet was called for fouling Walker on a possible 4-point play. Nurse challenged the call, but Walker’s 3-pointer was going to count anyway. And it wasn’t used to keep VanVleet out of foul trouble, because he had just one at the time. The Raptors did win the challenge, so it did erase a free throw attempt.
▪ Tatum has a knack for turning what appears to be a quiet offensive night into an onslaught. He missed all four of his 3-pointers in the first half, and then in one stretch of less than four minutes in the third quarter he hit two floaters and two 3-pointers, helping stretch the lead to 73-52.
▪ The Celtics made just 21.7 percent of their 3-pointers in the first half, which kept them from turning the game into a blowout earlier. The Raptors sliced the deficit to 10 early in the third and then VanVleet missed a layup that could have trimmed it to single digits. But Boston’s counterpunch was swift and severe. After a timeout they went on a quick 8-0 run, and by the end of the third quarter they led, 91-57.