The Celtics’ fairytale run continued as they held on to beat the Toronto Raptors 95-94. The Celtics surged to 12-2 by extending their win streak to an even dozen; the Raptors fell to 7-5. Here are four observations from an exciting afternoon in The Hub:
Possession by possession
Without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving it’s always going to be difficult to win an efficiency fight. The Celtics response through the win streak has been to make it a battle for possessions. This is a strategy that served them well two seasons ago when they paired a low turnover rate with, for much of the season, a historically high steal rate. This year they’re doing it with a more balanced approach.
Boston is currently top five in the league in limiting their own turnovers and their opponents offensive rebounds. They’re top ten in collecting their own offensive rebounds and forcing opponent turnovers. Against the Raptors they again won in both offensive rebounds and turnovers. The result was Boston taking 18 more field goal attempts than Toronto and only four fewer free throws. That’s 16 additional offensive possessions, which is how you win a game where you shoot 40%.
The Tao of Smart
Marcus Smart continues to be a fascinating NBA player. At some point we all just start repeating ourselves, but some things bear repeating. Since returning from his double ankle sprain ten games ago, which may still be bothering him, he’s shooting 28.6% from the field. The team is also +106 with him on the court.
He’s played with a wide variety of units and in different roles on both ends of the court. Tonight, with Kyrie sidelined, he dished out nine assists and got to the rim and free throw line more than he usually does. His defense continues to be exceptional, especially when paired with Terry (Tito, not T Ro) Rozier.
Box score stats drive a lot of the free agent market so NBA history is riddled with players who tailored their contract year seasons to what draws offers. Marcus continues to just be Marcus.
Young at Heart
Al Horford returned to the fold after suffering a concussion (or, concussion like symptoms at the very least) in his second straight year. Thankfully this one didn’t seem as severe as last season’s. He came back to a full workload; starting and logging over 30 minutes.
Al led Boston with 21 points but took only the fifth most field goal attempts on the squad. He was one of only two Celtics to shoot over 50% on the night, along with Jaylen Brown who went 8-15. Horford’s night was slightly more efficient, making 8-9 and 1-1 from three. The only moment he looked unsettled was shooting a technical free throw in the first quarter. He took a few extra dribbles after Brad Stevens instructed him to take the shot instead of Brown. I always think it must be weird to shoot FTs with no one on the lane if you’re not used to it.
After the game the C’s locker room was showering praise on their veteran leader. A few players mentioned that Al if playing like his younger self. He corrected the record, pointing out that the young Al Horford didn’t drain threes like this.
At the start of this season both of these franchises were viewed as “fake contenders” who could make it to the Conference Finals, and maybe even sneak all the way the the NBA Finals, but had no real chance to dethrone Golden State.
If Toronto can’t come into Boston and win a game like this against the severely depleted Celtics you have to ask if they’re even on that level. The Raptors dropped to one game over .500 with an acceptable but unspectacular point differential. It’s early in the season, but right now they look like the same team we’ve seen for the past few seasons, only less dynamic. They look closer to a bottom-4 seed than a threat for a deep run?
Meanwhile, a twelve game winning streak and the best defense in the league, by a wide margin, is an eye opener even 17% of the way into the season. It’s hard to predict where this team will go, but if their young players show second half development instead of smacking into the rookie wall, there’s still a huge amount of room for growth. The Cavaliers have a pile of questions. Boston doesn’t have the talent to match the Warriors, but they do have the types of players (and the coach) to disrupt their game and in a seven game series, you never really know.
More importantly, before the season it looked like there was a gap between the Celtics and the primary contenders behind the Warriors. That meant that even if Golden State suffered a serious injury crisis it was more likely that another team would benefit instead of Boston. At the moment, it looks like the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with the other teams poised to grab that opportunity if it comes. As Toronto slides out of the ranks of the pseudo contenders, Boston is quickly outgrowing that group.