10 things: Raptors must look in the mirror after brutal loss to Celtics

William Lou
·NBA reporter
·8 min read

Here are 10 thoughts from the Toronto Raptors’ 126-114 loss to the Boston Celtics.

One — This isn’t rock bottom. It’s far from it. If you watched the Jay Triano era then you would know that. But this is absolutely the way that leads to rock bottom. The Raptors didn’t just lose and fall to 1-5, they let go of the rope. When you’re sinking in the standings there is usually a sense of desperation that stems from a failure to meet expectations. Desperation begets anger, and while anger will eventually burn itself out, there is still a flicker and a hope that things will right itself. The Raptors were drowning tonight, as they have been since the season opener, but there was no desperation. There was no anger, nor any bargaining. They skipped straight to acceptance that it was another loss, and it has been since the Triano era that the Raptors have simply accepted a loss.

Two — The circumstances didn’t matter. Boston is a team with talent and potential, but they were not in top gear. This was a team that lost to the Pistons last week after receiving a 24-point lump of coal on Christmas. They were without three point guards, including an all-star in Kemba Walker, a solid veteran in Jeff Teague, and their beating heart in Marcus Smart. They started the 51st pick Tremont Waters and had rookie as his reserve. Toronto raced out to a 17-5 lead and the broadcasters were literally singing out of giddiness. But where did it get them? The Celtics responded with a 38-14 haymaker in the second quarter, captained by said rookie reserve Payton Pritchard who outplayed all but one of the Raptors. That was the game right there. That was the response the Raptors had for the very same Celtics who broke their hearts in Game 7 just a few months back. It really wasn’t a response at all, only a white flag.

Three — The team in Tampa Bay is like a cover band. The word “Raptors” is written across a giant chevron on their chest, and it features many of the same players that Raptors fans have come to admire and love. They play the same schemes — aggressively doubling stars, a heavy sprinkling of zone defense, a full-court press when they’re in need of miracles — but the results aren’t there. Doubling stars only bleeds open corner threes. Defending straight up results in Player of the Week awards for opposing stars. Zones go nowhere, and the full-court gimmicks leave the Raptors trapped in the backcourt while the Celtics score layups. And the fans? They’re imposters, too. Boos rang out on every Raptors free throw, while lusty chants of “we want Tacko” echoed through the empty crowd as if Amalie Arena was possessed by ghosts. You would think that might light a fire and get the Raptors players to silence them, but remember, these aren’t really the Raptors, either.

Four — Nurse is known for his trickery, and apparently it even extends off the court. He tore into his bench, focusing specifically on Matt Thomas and Terence Davis for their shortcomings, laughing off the very mention of rookie Malachi Flynn, and promised preposterous lineups to shore up their defense. But when it came time to play, there was Flynn as his first substitute off the bench, while Davis also saw extended time. So where was the defense? It was nowhere to be found. Jayson Tatum torched them for 40 points in 32 minutes, and the Raptors bench was shockingly bad. Four players for the Celtics second unit scored in double digits, including Pritchard who cooked many of Toronto’s starters, and Robert Williams who single-handedly outrebounded Toronto’s reserves. Nurse made a bluff, and his own players called him on it. How’s that for a trick?

Five — It’s always demoralizing to miss layups while the other side is on a run. Aron Baynes missed five of them in one half and got himself benched in the second half. Alex Len replaced him in the startling lineup, but it made no difference. Turns out swapping nothing for more nothing is still nothing. Tatum just kept roasting them in the pick-and-roll as if they weren’t even there, and if you’re going off their combined boxscore of 23 minutes with zero points and six rebounds, they weren’t. Chris Boucher had been a sparkplug in their previous games, but he got outmuscled every trip down. But at least that was better than Pascal Siakam’s shift at center, because he didn’t even care to do the bare minimum like tracking his man or boxing out. Plenty of jokes were had at Marc Gasol’s expense in the Celtics series, where he shaved his head out of frustration and bit into his jersey like a stress ball. But at least Gasol made the right pass and he could defend, at least he was competent and he cared.

Six — One starter was suspended, and another was benched six games into the year, and Nurse shouldn’t stop there. OG Anunoby is inconsistent for a team rife with inconsistency. He would sit too, but who would replace him? Norman Powell could get a look, except he makes mistakes like a rookie and it was his running one-legged floater overtop a seven-footer’s contest that opened Boston’s comeback push — I mean seriously, who even thinks to take a shot like that? Powell only makes the defense worse. And so who else is there? Nurse tried Davis, who is basically a Powell clone, in that he scores at the cost of inexplicable mistakes like tapping a defender on the shoulder for no reason whatsoever to turn a desperation heave into three free throws that ended a fake comeback. Nurse also gave Flynn his first extended look, and as much as Flynn garnered hype and excitement in preseason, he was noticeably nervous and he bled points on defense while scoring none of his own.

Seven — Picking on Nurse’s rotations is scratching the surface of this problem. The bigger issue is the roster construction. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have never faced criticism because they never actually deserved it until now, but what is this roster? Nurse said it himself in his pregame gambit that he “cannot keep sending out another little shooting guard” which covers about half the team. Nurse has no starting options at center, no backup power forward, and he’s so desperate for a wing defender for the second unit that he’s promising minutes to Johnson. Recall that Nurse viciously tore apart Johnson in last year’s training camp before a single game was played, digging at Johnson’s defense for not being up to standard despite his title as a stopper, before proceeding to ignore his existence for the entire season up until the Orlando bubble. A year later, Nurse is now using Johnson as a shield against all-stars like Tatum, Ben Simmons, and Brandon Ingram. Maybe expectations should have been adjusted accordingly.

Jan 4, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) drives to the basket against Boston Celtics forward Aaron Nesmith (26) during the second quarter at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Toronto Raptors continue to freefall down the NBA standings after another crushing loss to the Boston Celtics. (Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Eight — Siakam is working through it, and there really isn’t any other option but to let him try. It’s painful and almost tragic to see a diamond in the rough being asked to be the rock for this entire franchise. Siakam isn’t that guy right now, but he’s the closest option the Raptors have to it, so he’s working through his very glaring mistakes in real time. Siakam had his moments, most notably with a block on one end before taking it the length of the court for a layup, and that’s what he needs to deliver on a consistent basis. That aggression and that confidence needs to be there throughout the game just as Brown and Tatum showed on the other end. There is still so much more that is lacking, but for now, give Siakam some grace. He’s being asked to be someone that he isn’t, and the deal is already signed. The least we can do is show patience. He wasn’t terrible today.

Nine — The Raptors rarely got blown out over the last seven years because Lowry never let them. The chip on his shoulder was too big, and he would drive that chip through the chest of his opponents to inspire his side into comebacks. There’s a dozen games a year where Lowry would flip the momentum just through sheer will, the most memorable one being the 30-point comeback last season. So it was odd to see Lowry go through the motions today, even when the game was still winnable on paper. That chip came out in the form of berating officials, but hardly against the Celtics. Maybe it’s too much to expect this aging six-foot magician to always lift the team, to always fight the odds. Or maybe the odds are such that even Lowry didn’t make the bet. And if that’s the case, then real questions need to be asked.

Ten — Fred VanVleet was nothing short of awesome. His teammates let him down but he was sensational. To have him locked in for another four years is comforting. It’s a real shame that one of the best performances of his career is but a footnote.

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