Celtics fans who have only watched the Raptors play Boston since the NBA restarted might wonder what all the fuss is about. Sure, the Raptors are 11-0 against other teams. But their issue now is they can only play the Celtics.
And on Sunday, Boston followed up its 22-point thrashing of Toronto in a seeding game with an emphatic 112-94 win in Game 1 of these Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics never trailed, never wobbled, and never seemed in any danger.
It was a balanced effort. Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum had 21 points apiece, Kemba Walker had 18 points and 10 assists, and Daniel Theis added 13 points and 15 rebounds. The Celtics made 17 of 39 3-pointers while Toronto hit just 10 of 40 in its lowest-scoring game since arriving in Orlando.
Observations from the game:
▪ As expected, Robert Williams reemerged after mostly remaining on the bench during the Philadelphia series. Hulking center Joel Embiid is not a good matchup for him, but Raptors big man Marc Gasol isn’t nearly as dynamic, and Serge Ibaka cannot overpower Williams. The second-year center had a couple defensive lapses, but generally held up very well Sunday, especially as a rim protector. He finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 assists. He’ll be a factor in this series, and the confidence he gained in the seeding games will only help.
“Rob is one of those guys where he comes in and he changes the game, just his presence,” Smart said. “His athleticism is ridiculous.”
▪ It was a miserable first quarter for Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam. He missed a couple of relatively easy shots inside, and then was called for a charge when he tried to overpower Smart in the post with 5:15 left. Raptors coach Nick Nurse left Siakam in, which isn’t especially unusual anymore, but just a minute later Siakam collected his third foul when he hit Jaylen Brown’s arm as the Celtics forward hit a 3-pointer.
He finished the first half 1 for 8 with 1 rebound and no assists and finished with 13 points in the game. And guard Fred VanVleet, who has been excellent, was just 3 for 16. Smart said that Boston’s defensive versatility makes it uniquely equipped to slow Toronto’s dynamic scorers.
“Our ability and versatility to send different guys at them,” he said. “You’ve got me 6-3, you’ve got Semi [Ojeleye] 6-6, you’ve got Jaylen 6-6, and just constantly keeping different looks on those guys so they can’t get comfortable.”
▪ A great sign for the Celtics: Tatum was scoreless for the first 11 minutes but the Celtics exploded to a 17-point lead anyway.
▪ Even though very little went right for Toronto in the first half, it still had a good chance to slice into the deficit by halftime. The Raptors trailed by 12 and had the ball with 40 seconds left, a perfect two-for-one opportunity. Instead, Tatum slid into a passing lane for a steal and coasted in for a dunk. Then rather than bleed the clock, VanVleet missed a layup with about 20 seconds left, giving Boston plenty of time for Walker to drill a 3-pointer before the break. The lead could have been whittled to single digits. Instead, it was a cushy 17-point edge, thanks in large part to Tatum’s defense.
▪ The Celtics were hardly perfect on offense. They had a season-high 23 turnovers. Theis said the Philly series called for plenty of pull-up jumpers because of the way the 76ers sagged back in pick-and-roll coverage. But against Toronto, which has a more scramble-filled and switch-heavy attack, good ball movement will be essential.
Boston did shoot 47 percent from the field and 43.6 percent on 3-pointers, and coach Brad Stevens said shots happened to go in when they were needed most.
“It was more of a timely thing than how good we were playing on offense,” he said. “It was very tough to get a good shot.”
▪ The Raptors are one of the most dangerous transition teams in the NBA, but they had just a 7-6 edge in fast-break points, according to the official stats. Maybe he just didn’t want his players to get a false sense of security, but Stevens, for one, was not buying it.
“I think that’s probably a bad stat,” he said. “I think it’s probably more like we gave up a lot more transition and secondary transition points than that. We’ve done it well all year, but it needs to be a huge emphasis and I think we gave up a lot more than seven.”
▪ The Celtics had a slight scare late in the first half when Walker landed awkwardly on his left leg while contesting a shot in the paint. He stayed on the ground for a bit, then was limping noticeably as he essentially skipped an offensive possession. But he stayed in the game.
Walker’s left knee has given him trouble throughout this season, and the Celtics managed it carefully so he would be able to play without limits when these important games arrived. The plan has worked perfectly so far, and it appears Boston dodged a problem in this case. And when Walker was on the floor, he was excellent at both ends.
▪ Smart made just 2 of 15 3-pointers in the opening-round sweep of the 76ers. But he started this game by hitting a corner three, and maybe that’s exactly what he needed to see. He made 5 of 9 in this game and really did a little bit of everything. The Celtics outscored Toronto by 27 points during his 31 minutes on the floor.
“The last series for me wasn’t my best shooting performance of the playoffs, but I also knew that series did not call for me to make shots from the outside,” Smart said. “We had a lot of guys that were on, and my job was to just get those guys the ball. Things changed with different game plans, I got a great look off that first one and I just felt good the rest of the night.”
▪ The Celtics did have one brief drought when they were held scoreless for the first four minutes of the second quarter. The Raptors sliced the 19-point deficit to 9. But then Tatum hit a 3-pointer and the Raptors missed 10 shots in a row, and Boston’s lead never dipped below double digits again.