Nick Nurse likes to prepare for all eventualities. But even he didn’t know what to expect when his team was getting ready to open a new series against a division rival, after a week off, and in the midst of an unprecedented moment of social justice reckoning and while getting ready to kick off their ninth week in Florida.
What else? Oh yeah, Kyle Lowry, their tone-setting point guard was coming off an ankle injury.
So, in a series that projected to be a toss-up, the added uncertainty made what might happen after the ball went up Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney World Resort that much more of a crapshoot.
“I’m kind of waiting [to see what happens],” said the Toronto Raptors head coach before Game 1. “… I think everybody is trying to see what happens when it goes up and see what kind of mental capacity everyone has.”
Was it the Raptors’ mindset? Their game plan? The match-up with the Boston Celtics broadly?
Maybe — or likely — all of the above, but given the Celtics have been the Raptors’ most likely second-round opponent for months now, the best thing Toronto can do is look forward to Game 2 on Tuesday after Boston won Game 1 of their best-of-seven second-round series convincingly, 112-94, an outcome that was in play early and never seemed remotely in doubt.
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The defending NBA champions, winners of 32 of their past 37 games and 11 of 12 in Florida, simply didn’t have it for whatever reason and the Celtics — a popular pre-season pick to emerge from the Eastern Conference — weren’t going to cut Toronto any slack.
There was no category of the game that Toronto can take comfort in having out-played their Atlantic Division counterparts. The No.3 seeded Celtics got better performances out of their key players — Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart combined for 42 points on 15-of-28 shooting, while Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet managed just 8-of-32 from the floor. The Raptors’ bench — thought to be an area of strength before the series — was a non-factor, with Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka contributing 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting. The Raptors lost the battle of the centres, too, with Daniel Theis out-performing Marc Gasol.
Most concerning was the Raptors’ defence — the source of their identity — looked ordinary against a multi-faceted Celtics attack that got to the paint easily and whipped the ball around the perimeter to open shooters all afternoon, as they shot 47 per cent from the floor and 17-of-39 from three.
It has been a tough week and how the teams were going to handle it was a fair question in the build up, as the league worked its way through the wildcat strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake that delayed the start of the series and rendered basketball matters a distant concern for a few days.
“It was heavy at the heaviest times, and it eased some, but it’s been a process,” said Nurse. “Just kinda some time moving on and getting some things off our chests and some communication and feelings out, etc., and then trying to use our allotted time that we are trying to focus on basketball wisely and productively.
“We’ll see, right? That’s what we all want to see when the ball goes up here today, where we are.”
Quick analysis: where the Raptors are isn’t good enough, not against the Celtics anyway. This is not the badly depleted Brooklyn Nets, who Toronto easily swept aside in the first round.
It should be pointed out — and this is where Raptors fans might start feeling anxious — that the Celtics have been sharing precisely the same experience, other than the Raptors’ extra two weeks in Florida and the point guard with the wonky ankle.
They didn’t know what to expect either and, to their credit, weren’t about to look for possible excuses either.
“I’ve said this before, I think there are bigger things to worry about in the world than [the circumstances in the NBA bubble],” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “We are just going to go out and play as well as we can. Toronto and us have been on the exact same schedule. There is nothing normal about this experience so what we’ve tried to do this entire time is prepare as well as we can and play as well as we can. We will see how we play at 1 o’clock.”
They played great and if Raptors fans are looking for something to be worried about (beyond real life, we mean) they might start with having to reconcile the fact that Boston is now 4-1 against Toronto this year and more relevantly 2-0 against Toronto in Florida, with both wins coming in blowouts, going back to Boston’s beatdown against Toronto when they met during the seeding games that ended the regular season.
In that sense, Sunday afternoon was just more of the same. By the end of the first quarter Boston led 39-23 and shot 59.1 per cent against the Raptors’ defence — the best in the NBA since Jan. 15 and second only to the Milwaukee Bucks on the season.
“They over-help and they make multiple efforts to get back,” gushed Stevens before the game. “They don’t rely on always getting back to their own [man]. They’ll scramble and rotate; they’ll always stay in plays with their effort. When you drive the ball, there is going to be hands in the gaps, there is going to be long arms in the gaps, swiping at every time you drive it. You have to get rid of the ball on time in this series. If you over-dribble, you are in trouble.”
But the Raptors were their own worst enemy early. They came out of the gates clanging, and never stopped. Toronto was just 8-of-22 from the floor in the first quarter and 4-of-12 from three. That, combined with being on the wrong end of 11 fouls (to five for Boston), and coughing up six turnovers simply gave Boston too many chances. Granted, some of the calls seemed ticky-tacky at best. Nurse used his coach’s challenge on what looked like a very good close out by Siakam on a Jaylen Brown three and ended up losing the challenge, forcing Siakam to sit with his third foul which prompted Nurse to take a technical foul to shake things up.
It didn’t work. The Raptors got a brief spark when Nurse played both his centres – Gasol and Ibaka – together to start the second quarter and went zone. Toronto got a few turnovers to spark their transition game and Ibaka briefly looked like he was going to explode as he had 12 quick points by the time Toronto cut the Celtics lead to nine, but they couldn’t sustain it.
It was an Ibaka turnover on a late post-up that was picked off by Tatum that led to a solo fastbreak. When Brown followed up with a buzzer-beating three the Celtics were able to take a 59-42 lead into the half.
The Celtics were certainly prepared, give them that much. One of Toronto’s tendencies on defence is they are willing to give up three-point looks in the corners in order to protect their paint, confident that if they fly out hard to contest what is typically a high-value shot, they won’t get burned and in turn by defending the rim — the most highly valued area of all — they will come out ahead. Toronto gave up more corner threes than any other team in the NBA but were rewarded as teams converted only 36.5 per cent — fifth best.
It has worked all season but not Sunday. Boston seemed prepared to take advantage of the Raptors’ game plan and knocked down 10-of-15 from the corners.
The Raptors were 10-of-40 from deep no matter where they shot from.
It was that kind of day and has been that kind of week. The Celtics navigated it better than Toronto did, it would seem, and now the Raptors can only look ahead to Game 2.