There has been perhaps too much scrutiny placed on the Celtics after their uneven start, which included a blowout loss to Brooklyn and two close road losses they would have won with better late execution.
Boston’s trip to Tampa, Fla., to face the Toronto Raptors on a back-to-back could be considered its most difficult trip of the early season, but what we found out Monday during a relatively easy victory was the Raptors are hardly the rival we’ve seen flourish in the East the past few years.
Pointing out the Celtics’ issues with their double-big lineup or defensive lapses are nitpicking compared with what’s going on to the North (or, this season, the South). The Raptors are 1-5 after Boston’s 126-114 win at Amalie Arena, with usually affable coach Nick Nurse still searching for answers.
Nurse is no Brad Stevens. The two are completely different personalities, and Nurse has no issue criticizing his players to the media. After Monday’s loss, he had a lot to criticize. His team was outscored, 51-23, by the Celtics to end the first half after jumping out to an early 13-point lead.
The Raptors punched first in the rematch of that epic Eastern Conference semifinal series, beginning the game with a series of 3-pointers, resembling the free-wheeling team that has dominated Boston the past few years. But that run was short lived. The Raptors have lost their personality, and have no idea how to get it back.
“We have no swag to us,” All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said. “Right now, there’s nothing to us. Teams are looking at us like, ‘All right, let’s go eat.’ That’s not a good feeling. It’s a fine line between being good and bad.”
After hitting 7 of its first 9 3-pointers, Toronto hit 6 of its final 28. Without the 3-point shot as a weapon, the Raptors were relegated to trying to attack the basket, which couldn’t keep pace with Jayson Tatum and friends splashing 3-pointers after a slow start.
Without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the Raptors have lost their teeth on defense, and they have unwillingly turned into a finesse team. Pascal Siakam, who looked putrid in the NBA bubble, tried playing physical early but looked frustrated against the Celtics defense.
Lowry, who usually punishes the Celtics, looked lethargic, especially after some early shots didn’t go down.
Nurse was visibly upset following the defeat, as the Raptors allowed a season high in points and were pounded, 56-37, on the boards.
“Just our inability to guard, I think that was the biggest thing,” Nurse said. “We gave up 38 in the second quarter. It was our inability to make them take tough shots. For whatever reason, we’re not guarding the ball very well. We’re just not making it hard enough and it’s not just one particular person. It seems to be spreading.”
And the Celtics thought they had issues. The Brooklyn Nets are 1-4 since that Christmas Day win and will be without Kevin Durant for a week because of COVID-19 protocols. Miami is just 3-3. The apparently reborn Charlotte Hornets are 2-5.
The Raptors are facing a serious test with a West Coast road trip approaching and seemingly no idea how to return to their once-pristine culture.
“This is probably unchartered territory for most of us,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “Just speaking for myself, I’ve never been a part of something like this, but we can’t hang our heads. Nobody is feeling sorry for us. Phoenix [whom they play Wednesday] doesn’t give a damn what our record is. They are going to try to punch us in the mouth. Nobody is coming to save us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”
The Raptors have become essentially a two-man team. Lowry and VanVleet may be the best guard tandem in the Eastern Conference when playing well, but Siakam, who made his first All-Star Game last spring, has descended since the Raptors arrived in the bubble last July.
He scored a season-high 22 points, but 14 came in the second half, when the Celtics led by as many as 26. He missed the Raptors’ only win because Nurse suspended him for heading to the locker room with time still left on the clock following a foul-out.
Nurse has been clamoring for his bench to contribute more, and the reserves were 8-for-29 from the field Monday. With his starters besides VanVleet struggling and his bench unable to produce, Nurse is in a quandary.
“I don’t think so,” Nurse said when asked if he was impressed with any of his reserves, “but I don’t think anybody in the first unit played defense either. It’s on everybody, myself included, that we’re not guarding.
“I didn’t learn anything [Monday] other than we’ve got to compete harder, and hopefully this is not who we are going to be. We just didn’t fight hard enough, especially in the middle of the game. If you want to be honest about it, Norm [Powell] hasn’t played very well this year. [Terence Davis] hasn’t played very well. Matt [Thomas] didn’t play well. We gotta play better, man.
“I think they’re better players than that.”