One of these teams will not get where it wants to go.
It’s self-evident, but it bears repeating, because the Toronto Raptors’ 118-95 drubbing of the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night was not your average potential playoff preview. After each team hit the upgrade button on their best players — Isaiah Thomas and DeMar DeRozan — by attaching assets in exchange for free agents-to-be Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, the franchises are playing for more than an NBA Finals berth. Failure would send shockwaves down the spines of both organizations.
The stakes, as most NBA things go, are star-driven. So are the problems. Neither team has found a consistent rhythm thus far, with just six weeks until the playoffs. The Raptors are working around Leonard’s excessive load management, which has kept him out of 17 games this season, while the Celtics work around the cloud of drama that surrounds Irving: his gratingdesire to be a leader, his public airing of disappointments, his free-agency flip-flop. This is what today’s superstars do: They leverage their power to achieve their desires.
And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth the bother, look to the game’s opening minutes. Leonard began by barreling down the court against Marcus Smart — not an easy man to barrel down, mind you — twice, leading to an open three for Serge Ibaka. Then Irving dribbled up the floor, and in an attempt to match Leonard’s energy, clanked a 28-foot transition 3-point attempt off the rim. That’s pretty much how this one went. Irving finished with seven points on 10 shots, while the Raptors rode Leonard’s smooth 9-for-15, 21-point performance.
“Kawhi had a little bit different gear in him tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “He was just a little bit more relaxed in general but was still assertive, if that makes any sense. He was just going to take it where he wanted to take it tonight, and no one was going to do anything about it.”
So the stars go, so the game goes.
How do you put together a series of semi-disjointed parts? Make another trade, apparently, this time when there’s just 26 games remaining in the season. The Raptors shook up their rotation at the trade deadline, trading Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles and Delon Wright to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol, and they added Jeremy Lin as a free agent.
Despite the fact that he is coming off the bench, Gasol has created the template for the offense. He is a dribbling ecosystem, surveying the floor for cutters while posting up and inducing ball movement. “I think you’re seeing a lot more cuts around here than you’ve seen in a long time since the addition of Gasol,” Nurse said, “and I think you’re going to see a lot more because there’s a lot of guys getting layups at the end of them.”
The bench buzzes around Gasol, cutting and screening so often that double-teams arrive at their own peril. Prior to Gasol’s arrival, the Raptors repeatedly tried to create that same chaos around Leonard, but they’re finally starting to do that now. It seems more like habit formation than coincidence — a team that cuts for Gasol will cut for Kawhi, simply because it’s what it’s used to.
Combined with forward and Most Improved Player candidate Pascal Siakam — whose shooting will surely be a playoff X-factor — tying a career-high with four 3-pointers while anchoring Toronto’s switch-happy offense, and the Raptors’ performance was a fever dream, a blueprintfor the rest of the season.
“I give Kyle [Lowry] and Kawhi [a lot of credit]. Those guys accepted a young guy [Siakam] coming in here and scoring a lot of buckets and they love him,” Nurse said. “There’s no ill will. You know they’re trying to give him more, get him more opportunities. It’s pretty cool.”
The Celtics, on the other hand, are having a harder time dealing with young trade assets playing alongside a trade acquisition.
“Same old, same old,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Obviously, we struggled to score in those stretches, and then that bled into transition defense, bled into our defense.” Boston tried to make a run in the second half, with Jayson Tatum securing an offensive rebound, Smart stealing one later and Marcus Morris connecting on a four-point play, but the Raptors kept executing in the halfcourt, while the Celtics faced the fear of another kind of habit formation lasting into the postseason: their lack of consistency and seriousness finally catching up to them.
“The reality is that we're taking a lot of shortcuts and not being as solid as we have been in the past in the last two games,” Stevens said. “I thought we were really good against Milwaukee [in a close loss last week]. So it's not like we don't know what we need to do, but for whatever reason, we've taken too many shortcuts.”
For how similar the Raptors and Celtics are, they sure look different right now.
Perhaps that’s where there is a virtue to silence (which was an approximation of Irving’s postgame tone). While the speculation surrounding free agency and trades has seeped into locker rooms and psyches across the league, the Raptors have largely managed to avoid it. Leonard could very well pack his bags and leave for Hollywood this summer, but you won’t hear much about it, largely because everyone knows there is no point in asking Leonard any questions about free agency — or the mystery surrounding his breakup with the Spurs, or any of the speculation around it. Multiple teammates have said he didn’t even privately address his return to San Antonio as anything more than your average game, or address being booed after the fact.
As a result, the spectacle held less weight, because that’s all it was. Mind over matter, and all that. For two teams that have so many wrinkles to sort out in the next six weeks before the playoffs, one less problem could be the difference.
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