A game between two supposedly defensive-minded teams turned into an offensive frenzy at the ACC on Wednesday night, with the Toronto Raptors (27-15) getting the best of the Boston Celtics 115-109 for their season-high sixth straight win. Although the Raps had their troubles against Brad Stevens’ feisty, deep Celtics, they had little difficulty responding to the defensive pressure of the league’s fifth-stingiest field goal percentage allowed club, shooting 55.4% (46-83) on the night thanks to a 40-point third quarter in which they shot 72.7% (16-22) from the floor.
Even a 40-point third wasn’t enough to put the game away, however. Boston, who shot 50.6% (43-85) themselves, rallied back to tie the game at 105-105. From there, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross responded with back-to-back threes to give the Raps a lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the way, with DeMar DeRozan putting the finishing touches on their 27th win with a jumper in the final minute to seal the deal.
It was DeRozan, once again, who put the Raps on his shoulders during this stunning stretch of elite play. Despite some apparent math deficiencies, even DeRozan can see that it was his 34 points on 13-25 shooting that helped propel Toronto to its second-highest scoring output of the season. On the other side of the court, Isaiah Thomas led a balanced Celts attack with 21 points, while Amir Johnson posted a quiet two points on 1-3 shooting in his return to TO, although he was feted with a warm welcoming and a standing ovation after what was, in my estimation, a pretty mediocre video package.
With Amir in town sporting Celtic green, the new big man starting combination of Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola didn’t exactly make Raptor fans pine for their former starting power forward. JV was a perfect 9-9 from the floor, scoring 19 points, pulling down 12 rebounds and finishing a game-best +20 in less than 30 minutes on court. Scola bounced back from a string of middling outings to produce 18 points on 8-12 shooting. By comparison, the starting front court tandem of Johnson and Jared Sullinger managed just five points on 2-10 shooting. No surprise, then, that the Raps held a 54-38 advantage in the paint.
DeMar’s All-Star push
DeRozan simply had too much ground to make up in the voting polls for the Eastern Conference starting five at the Feb. 14th All-Star Game, but his recent stretch of hot play has bolstered a resume that will make it hard for coaches not to include him among the East reserves. Not only has a string of three 30+ outings in his last five given him a career-high 23.1 ppg average, but he is shooting at a considerably higher percentage than in his previous All-Star campaign two years ago (44.4%, compared to 42.9%). Stevens, who acknowledged that he looked at efficiency and also factored in players that would make him pay for an omission when selecting his All-Star candidates, said of Lowry and DeRozan, “they’re going to be All-Stars, no doubt about it”.
Good for Dwane Casey to let a little bit of air out of the bubble after the Raps’ sixth straight win by pointing out that the club seems to be getting away from its primary m.o. with some passive defensive efforts of late. Toronto has allowed an average of 104 points over their past three games and have allowed the Celtics and Nets – two clubs not exactly known for scoring efficiency – to shoot better than 50% from the floor. Casey specifically singled out defending the three as an issue after Wednesday’s game, with Jae Crowder going off for 17 points on 7-11 shooting.
One guy who wasn’t on hand to watch Amir’s return on Wednesday was Eric Koreen, whose eight-year beat covering the Raptors for the National Post ended amidst Tuesday’s Postmedia layoffs. It is a profound shame for any Raps fan, such as myself, spoiled by his brilliant blend of snark, sarcasm and genuine insight. As his Twitter account highlights, he even approached his own termination with plenty of levity and some trademark self-deprication. Hope he finds a new platform real soon.
With a probable three first round picks looking in the 2016 draft and as much as $50 million coming off the books after this season, not to mention another salary cap bump, GM Danny Ainge appears poised to make this the summer to carve out the Celtics’ path for the forseeable future. While Ainge’s process remains to be seen, he will be armed with trade assets and a solid foundation of young, albeit not star level, talent that can serve as fairly inexpensive depth pieces. Thomas, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart remained signed to reasonable deals past this season, making them all movable but also enabling them to be contributors without occupying too much of the cap ledger.
A Friday night ESPN tilt against the Heat (8:00pm, SN1) will come down to who can go from Miami. Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside are all questionable as of this writing.
Prediction: Heat 107, Raps 103 (record this season: 24-17)