The Raptors are as professional and disciplined a group you will find in the NBA but every — and we mean every — team has a stinker every once in a while. Toronto does it less frequently than most squads and it was odd to seem them down 25, then 30, then 40 points against Boston on Friday because of this, but don’t go jumping off the bandwagon just yet.
Toronto had the best defence in Orlando before getting lit up.
Sure, Toronto has now fallen to Boston in a pair of high-profile games (the Christmas Day meeting being another one of the rare Raptor letdown games — though Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol were out for that one), and they don’t have answers for the prolific duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but I’d still pick the Raptors in a playoff series. That said, Kemba Walker looked better than I expected given he’s not 100% and outplayed Kyle Lowry. Lowry’s also thrived against Boston this season, but Walker provides the rare adversary at the position who at least equals him during most meetings.
For Toronto to win against the Celtics they probably need to take advantage of their almost comical advantage in the middle. Marc Gasol needs to be aggressive, even though that’s not the nature of his game anymore. He needs to channel some of his prior, superstar form from when he was carrying Memphis and Spain. He needs to bully the smaller Celtics and look to score more. Serge Ibaka also has an advantage, though his worst game of the season (1-for-9 shooting) would make any observer think otherwise.
I’ve been on record saying I’d take Tatum over Pascal Siakam if building a franchise, which is no knock against Pascal, who is a fringe MVP candidate who should only get better. It’s more a statement of how young Tatum is and how good he already is. In any event, the Raptors need more from Siakam in the biggest matchups.
Even though Brown gives up some size to Siakam, he’s a strong defender and has held him to 41.7% shooting this season. Tellingly, Siakam has not earned a trip to the free throw line when guarded by Brown, nor has he handed out even a single assist. He’s actually attempted 24 field goals against Brown, tied with Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac for Siakam’s most attempts against any player. Though Isaac is rightly lauded as a potential defensive player of the year candidate and has a reputation for cooling off Siakam, Pascal has actually shot 50% against him. (To Siakam’s credit, he’s held Brown to 36% shooting when they’ve matched up this season at the other end and has been the only Raptor Brown hasn’t torched this season when they’ve guarded him).
Brown is so underrated. He’s also put the clamps on Tobias Harris (2-for-11), James Harden (0-for-5) and giant Kristaps Porzingis (3-for-9) this season. He gets the least publicity, but quietly is as important to the Celtics as any of the other stars.
When the NBA season went on pause we were robbed of a couple of big-time reunions that promised to be quite emotional. Toronto and Memphis had not yet met, meaning Jonas Valanciunas was about to have a homecoming and Gasol was slated to be feted back in Tennessee. The teams hadn’t squared off since last year’s blockbuster which gave Toronto its missing piece to win the title.
Gasol is the Grizzlies all-time leader in rebounds, free throws, blocks, triple-doubles, minutes, field goals, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. More than that, he’s also one of the most popular athletes Memphis has ever seen, having also attended high school there while brother Pau was starring for the Grizzlies. It would have been a celebration.
Meanwhile, Valanciunas was one of the most popular Raptors ever. Homegrown with a gigantic personality that matched his immense frame, Valanciunas is amongst the franchise’s leaders in rebounds (only Chris Bosh hauled in more), blocks (behind Bosh and Amir Johnson), field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and more. He’s tied for first in win shares per 48 minutes in Raptors history (Donyell Marshall is the surprising co-leader), just ahead of Kyle Lowry.
It would have been a lot of fun for these reunions to happen in person. Now we’ll have to wait until next year, with no guarantee free agent to be Gasol is even still a Raptor by then.
Oh and I’ll say it one more time even though there seems to be an even 50-50 split on this amongst anyone I talk to: Valanciunas should have been given the option of accepting a ring. He contributed way more to the championship season than many of the people who actually got one and you wouldn’t have Gasol without him. He also attended the playoff opener to support his friends and was beloved by them.
1 — Jaylen Brown
2 — Kemba Walker
3 — Marc Gasol
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