ORLANDO — As Nick Nurse tears into officials about their calls or lack thereof in Game 2, he may be missing the major reason why the Raptors are down 0-2 in this series to the Celtics.
It’s a pretty fundamental factor: the Celtics are dominating in 3-point shooting while the Raptors have been putrid from beyond the arc.
The Celtics have put a major emphasis on making Toronto uncomfortable beyond the arc, defending the Raptors’ smaller backcourt with length, blitzing the moment the ball reaches the frontcourt and closing out on defense with arms raised high.
The result has been poor shooting from three of the Raptors’ primary 3-point shooters. The trio of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are a combined 6 for 40 from beyond the arc. The Raptors have made just 21 of 80 3-point attempts and the combination of Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby has hit 11 of those.
That’s exactly what the Celtics want. They want to turn Anunoby into a scorer, which is not his role. He led the Raptors with 20 points in Game 2. Anunoby topped the 20-point mark just six times during the regular season, and the Celtics are going to let him score because it takes the ball away from VanVleet, Lowry and Pascal Siakam, especially from the 3-point line.
“There’s a good share of (the 3-point shots) that are really good (looks),” Nurse said of Lowry and VanVleet’s attempts. “I’m not saying all of them were great. I think Freddy had a couple that people were closing pretty hard on. But I do think there’s 12 to 13 of them that were pretty good.”
Is Brad Stevens outcoaching Nurse? There is an argument that says yes because for the past two games the Celtics have been fully prepared for anything Toronto has offered. The Celtics were ready for a Toronto onslaught in Game 2, expecting that Lowry and VanVleet would find their shooting stroke.
VanVleet opened up with 9 points in the opening quarter, but the Celtics used 10 points from Robert Williams to stay close, including a rare 20-footer to tie the game after one quarter. The rock fight ensued in the second period when both teams combined for 42 points, and the Celtics had a chance to go into halftime with a 8-point lead but Kemba Walker missed an open 3-pointer and Siakam ended the half with a rainbow 28-footer to slice the Toronto deficit to 2 points.
The Raptors appeared to take control in the third when Anunoby and Ibaka combined for four 3-pointers and the Celtics missed 16 of 21 shot attempts. But it was deceiving because Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam combined for only 11 points in that period. They weren’t seeing the ball go through the hoop so they initiated some pressed shots in the final period, especially from Siakam.
“I thought we were playing great there. I think we played our guts out, we really gave everything I think that we could give,” Nurse said. “On one end one guy is making contested threes (Marcus Smart) on the other end some threes are not going that are more open than they were on the other end. I thought we played very well, very proud of the guys.”
What was debilitating was that 16-point stretch early in the fourth quarter by Smart. He scored those points in three minutes and four seconds, bringing the Celtics all the way back from an 8-point deficit. After Smart’s barrage, the Raptors began pressing, looking for the home run shot. VanVleet and Lowry were visibly frustrated when shots caromed off the rim.
“I think they’re just up on us,” Lowry said. “They’re doing a good job of being up on the pick-and-rolls. I had a bunch of open looks but I just missed them. The shots are there, we’ve just got to make them. The Celtics are playing extremely well. We’ve just got to find a way to get ourselves going. No excuses, we just have to play better, honestly.”
Stevens has put the onus on Siakam, a first-time All-Star, to be the focus of the Toronto offense. Last season during Toronto’s championship run, Siakam was the perfect complement to Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. This time, Siakam is the primary offensive weapon and he’s struggling in that role.
He’s 11-for-32 shooting in the series and averaging 15 points. Lowry said he told Siakam that the Raptors are fully confident he can handle that role.
“They’re obviously giving him a lot of attention,” Nurse said. “I thought he made good decisions tonight. I thought he took the right shots. I thought he made the right pass. I liked the way he played. He was composed. He got to the rim. He made some shots.”
The Raptors are going to need to be better offensively, especially in the halfcourt, to have an opportunity to win Game 3. Nurse is known for his astute adjustments but he didn’t make many between Games 1 and 2. He placed confidence in his best players to play well, and they simply didn’t.
How the Celtics are defending may be the major reason for that.
“I think we know we shouldn’t give up,” Nurse said. “We know the next game is super critical.”