Of all the second round series in this year’s NBA Playoffs, Boston and Toronto’s showdown in the East was the most anticipated (and expected) coming into the postseason. The Celtics and Raptors mirror each other in a lot of ways, and the expectation is this will be a highly competitive series.
They are two of the top defensive teams in the league, with Boston boasting a star trio in the backcourt with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown and Toronto with one to match in Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam. However, in Game 1 of their series, Boston took control early and never relinquished it, running away to a dominant 112-94 victory and setting the tone for the rest of the series.
It was a nightmare offensive performance from Toronto, who couldn’t buy a three-pointer in this one, hitting just 25 percent from beyond the arc, while Boston was on fire from deep, hitting threes at a 43.6 percent clip. It was quite the statement from the Celtics in Game 1, but there’s a long way to go in this series, still. Here are our takeaways from a lopsided opener.
The Raptors have a Kemba Walker problem
Jayson Tatum led the way in scoring for Boston with 21 points (tied with, of all people, Marcus Smart), as he is wont to do, and has the capability of just getting a bucket when the Celtics need one, even if the Raptors play excellent defense.
However, the bigger issue for Toronto wasn’t Tatum getting his, because he did so, mostly, against good defense and that’s something you have to live with. The problem in Game 1 was how often Kemba Walker was able to breakdown the Toronto defense to create open looks for his teammates — and, even, himself on his relocation three to end the first half.
CARDIAC KEMBA AT THE BUZZER ☘️👌🏾 pic.twitter.com/04mlGuWTwp
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 30, 2020
Walker was masterful in the pick-and-roll game, attacking the rim when given a lane, pulling up from three when the Raptors dared go under, but most impressively he was able to beat the trap with great pocket passes, kickouts, and skip passes when the defense tried to collapse on him. He finished the game with 18 points and a team-high 10 assists, orchestrating a masterful offensive performance.
The Raptors are always creative with their defense and found solid success in the second quarter with a 2-3 zone, and you can expect Nick Nurse to dial up some different looks for Walker in Game 2 to keep him from going downhill the way he was in Game 1. Toronto is going to live with Tatum and Brown creating their own shots in isolation, but what they can’t have is Walker poking holes in their defense and creating so many open shots for the rest of his teammates.
Boston’s ball pressure really bothered Toronto
It was a game in which the Raptors got a taste of their own medicine and their guards did not respond well. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet looked bothered by the Celtics ball pressure and traps and struggled to get into any sort of a rhythm. They were unable to get to the basket as they want and VanVleet, especially, found himself settling for a lot of outside shots when they weren’t falling (1-of-8 from three). One would expect that to regress some as the series progresses as he did miss some open looks, but Boston did a great job cutting off driving lanes and keeping VanVleet away from the rim and off of the foul line. They applied constant pressure to whoever was on the ball, and the result was a hefty turnover night for Lowry with five and a lot of discombobulated offense in the halfcourt from Toronto.
— NBA (@NBA) August 30, 2020
Lowry started to get it going a bit in the second half, but the damage was already done. The guards weren’t the only ones that struggled to find their rhythm, as Pascal Siakam had a brutal night, going 4-for-14 and scoring just 10 points. Siakam fell in love with posting up Boston’s various shorter, but exceptionally strong players and forcing up a lot of mediocre looks out of those post-ups, with the Celtics happy to let him have those and not sending much help at him to avoid giving up a much better look off of a pass.
The Raptors halfcourt offense was the big concern going into the Bubble, as they were a slightly below average group in the regular season. Those issues reared their head in Game 1, and while they certainly should hit more open shots than they did in the opener, they weren’t creating that many good looks that you feel like this was a matter of just not knocking down shots. Toronto has to figure out how to penetrate this Boston defense better, as Walker has against them, and make adjustments to their approach because the gameplan for Game 1 simply didn’t work.
Toronto has to get out in transition
This goes hand in hand with their halfcourt struggles, but the Raptors defense has to create more live-ball turnovers and has to force misses that allow them to run. They had just seven points off the break in Game 1 and they just generally need some easy baskets after such a dismal shooting performance. This is a championship team and while I’m not concerned they’ll suddenly lose confidence, they’re a team that feeds off of their defensive performance and that was simply lacking on Sunday.
They weren’t a disaster defensively and you don’t expect Marcus Smart to go 5-of-9 from three-point range, but at the same time it wasn’t they crisp performance on that end you expect from them — and that they need to take down a team like Boston. On offense, they’ll need to approach Boston the way a lot of teams approach Toronto, which is to try and push the action before their halfcourt defense can get set. Forcing some cross-matches and getting Boston to scramble a bit in transition and semi-transition might be their best bet to establishing a rhythm and getting themselves into this series.