Siakam continues to make All-NBA case with Raptors

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 115-112 overtime win over the Boston Celtics.

One—That was not an easy win. The Celtics were short four starters, but they played with the intensity and execution of a team that was fully intent on collecting their 24th win over the past 28 games. Boston got out to an early lead, Toronto was late to every loose ball, and it took a gutsy effort by the Raptors and a superstar performance from their leader to take the game in overtime. It also cannot go unmentioned just how poorly the game was officiated, which contributed to the overall frustration and relief in the win.

Two Pascal Siakam continues to make his case for All-NBA with 40 points and 13 rebounds. Siakam was relentless against the Celtics, getting downhill repeatedly and toasting everyone the Celtics put in his way. The basis of Boston’s defense is switching matchups to keep the ball on the perimeter, while sending help in the paint, and it worked against every other player on the Raptors but Siakam was not deterred. With the Raptors down four points in the final minute, Siakam used a spin move to get around Daniel Theis for a basket through heavy contact, then got downhill against Aaron Nesmith for two free throws which he knocked down to force overtime. Then in the extra period, it was Siakam who scored a putback, and hit a midrange pull-up which ended up as the game-winning basket.

Three Siakam’s effort was almost spoiled by fouling out. Siakam played through foul trouble all night, where the difference between the contact he initiated compared to the physicality that went unpunished against him was as if Siakam was simultaneously playing two sports. However, his aggression from him remained high despite playing most of the fourth quarter and overtime with five fouls, including a highlight block in overtime. Siakam ended up fouling out on a loose ball foul, where he bumped Grant Williams and there was actual contact. But the ball was only loose in the first place because Thad Young was clotheslined on the pass that preceded it, which is just one of many egregious decisions from the officiating. Consider this: Siakam took 29 shots and scored 16 field goals in the paint, yet he only got one more free throw than Williams, who is a fifth option on the Celtics.

Four The officiating was outrageously bad. Nobody has high standards for NBA officiating, but this was borderline scandalous. Boston got twice as many free throws and half as many fouls called against them, while two Raptors players ended up fouling out whereas not a single Celtic was even remotely in range of foul trouble. The final foul against Siakam only happened because Young was clotheslined. Scottie Barnes was eliminated on a Marcus Smart flop after his own teammate set a moving screen. And Nick Nurse couldn’t save either one with his challenge, because he had to burn it to overturn an outlandish goaltending call made by official Evan Scott who was the farthest ref on a clear-cut chase down play by Precious Achiuwa.

Five Boston’s defensive strategy presents a unique challenge. The Celtics switch most actions and force teams into playing isolation, and they’re mostly willing to concede top-of-the-floor threes by sending help from the perimeter to dig at the ball. The end result is that teams have to play a lot of isolation basketball to hunt mismatches, which will strain the offense. Siakam was great in his matchup, but nobody else could create. On an average night, the Raptors would shoot a higher percentage from three, but ultimately this is the style of defense that most teams employ in the playoffs.

Six Thad Young was sensational when needed. Young played the entirety of the fourth quarter and overtime, and was repeatedly making the right plays on both ends. Young nailed two threes in the fourth, and hit a runner against a short clock while winning two offensive rebounds. Defensively, Young collected the game-saving block on Marcus Smart’s drive up two with 30 seconds left, and had another highlight play to swat Daniel Theis in overtime. In the midst of all of that, Young took multiple hard knocks, but the 33-year-old veteran was still able to be the cool head in the room, making play after play. In these intense games, the value of an experienced player who doesn’t get rattled is invaluable. It’s very telling that Nurse chose to close with Young ahead of younger legs in Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher.

Seven Fred VanVleet is clearly not himself, but he always has a clutch play up his sleeve. VanVleet was hobbled all night as he continued to battle a tricky right knee, but he willed the team back to life in the fourth quarter with back-to-back threes. Before that sequence, VanVleet was raked across the arms by Payton Pritchard on a closeout without any call from the officer, which earned him an earful from VanVleet all the way down the floor. Where VanVleet’s injury is most noticeable is when he gets into the paint, where he already struggles on account of his height from him, but the total lack of burst and leaping ability leaves the kick-out pass as his only option from him.

Eight Nurse said he was surprised that Gary Trent Jr. was available to play, then proceeded to lean on him for 37 minutes. Nurse said Trent Jr. was not moving freely in practice, but when it came time to tipoff, Trent Jr. was in the starting lineup and back in to close at the end. Trent Jr. iced the game with a pair of intentional fouls, and came up with three steals and a fourth in overtime that was robbed from him by the officials, but he was clearly not at his best. At one point, Trent Jr. had his finger re-tapped and was getting the shoelace treatment, which might explain the times that he mishandled the ball. Trent Jr. is a rhythm player who has consistently shot poorly in his return to the lineup, but it’s out of his system after a couple of games.

Nine Nurse stuck to a tight eight-man rotation. He could have kept Armoni Brooks in the rotation to keep minutes down for Trent Jr. and VanVleet, who are both banged up, or he could have even played Brooks in two-guard lineups to boost the team’s woeful shooting, but he stuck with his core players. Down the stretch, the rotation shrank to just five players, as Trent Jr. and Achiuwa were only reintroduced due to players fouling out. This is a preview of how the playoffs will go, as the Raptors have really only trusted their top-eight when everyone has been healthy. It’s the starting five, with three forwards in Young, Achiuwa, and Boucher coming off the bench in tight games.

have The preferred starting lineup for the Raptors is now a minus on the season. It’s not entirely fair to judge the group when three of the five in Anunoby, VanVleet, and Trent Jr. are known to be nursing injuries, but this trend extends back to December. Even though the group features five players who can all create their own shot and score 20 points with regularity, there is this lingering impression that they are less than the sum of their parts which totally runs counter to what the Raptors have been all season. Ironically, for a team that is almost entirely constituted of forward, their starters are the smallest group that the Raptors turn to with regularity. That lack of length, coupled with the disjointed nature of the offense where all five players feel like it’s their turn to attack leaves something to be desired.

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