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Toronto Raptors

DeRozan, Valanciunas help keep Raptors step ahead of Celtics

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) climbs to his feet after falling in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Friday, Dec. 23, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Raptors won 104-98. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The Boston Celtics had a great chance to make a statement win at Toronto on Tuesday, but the Raptors’ firepower was just too much.

Trailing by as many as 16 in the third quarter, Toronto stormed back thanks to a flurry of buckets from DeMar DeRozan and rebounding dominance from Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors’ 114-106 comeback victory ended a two-game losing streak and helped them regain their grip on the East’s No. 2 seed.

In a juicy preview of a potential playoff battle, Toronto was more aggressive around the rim and made more crunch-time plays. But before crowning the Raptors as the vastly superior team, let’s remember Brad Stevens’ squad was missing a key cog: Avery Bradley.

Bradley sat out Tuesday’s contest with a strained Achilles, so Boston faced the Eastern Conference’s best backcourt without its best two-way guard. The Celtics struggled in more than one way without Bradley. His value to the Shamrocks was magnified via his absence.

Firstly, it would have been nice to have Bradley’s defense down the stretch. He could have spent time guarding both Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, and perhaps would have slowed down their creative drives. DeRozan had his way with the likes of Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas en route to 41 points on 16-of-29 shooting.

Boston also missed Bradley’s outside shooting, as it shot 9-of-27 from three-range. Bradley is averaging 2.1 triples and 42 percent on three-pointers so far this season. Lastly, he would have made it more difficult for the Raptors’ guards and wings to grab boards. Bradley wouldn’t have single-handedly closed the rebounding gap (Toronto out-rebounded Boston 57-42), but he’s the Celtics’ top board-getter at 7.0 per game:

[graphiq id=”lljfC9aNN1H” title=”Celtics at Raptors on January 10, 2017 – Complete Recap” width=”800″ height=”719″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/lljfC9aNN1H” ]

That being said, the Raptors deserve credit for taking that game from the Celtics and making tough plays in the second half.

DeRozan showcased his mid-range mastery, converting a bushel of tough mid-range shots. Few players have the combination of footwork, dexterity and athleticism to execute contested pull-up jumpers. He made almost every variation of short jump shot imaginable, and he scored over a half-dozen different defenders. DeRozan made sure to capitalize on his size advantage whenever Thomas (5’9″) guarded him.

Here’s a sampling of DeRozan’s mid-range prowess from Tuesday:

 

His two biggest buckets sealed the victory for Toronto, as he rose up and scored over both Thomas and Crowder in the final minutes. Although DeRozan defies the growing trend of three-point shooting and avoiding mid-range shots, it’s nice to have a versatile in-between arsenal like that for late-game situations:

 

While Lowry also enjoyed a productive night (24 points, nine assists), the other Raptor who Boston couldn’t solve was Valanciunas. The Lithuanian pillar was unstoppable on the glass, reeling in 23 boards,  including 11 offensive rebounds. That’s almost twice as many offensive rebounds as the entire Celtics team grabbed (six).

Valanciunas’ lack of scoring progress this season has been frustrating for Raptors nation, but nights like this show why he’s still immensely valuable. Even though he shot 6-of-18 from the field, he controlled the paint when it mattered and drew a bunch of fouls on Boston’s frontcourt.

The big fella’s rebounding authority also highlighted one of the Celtics’ main weaknesses. Boston’s opponents average 45.4 rebounds per game this season, while the Celtics average just 41 boards. Al Horford is their leading frontcourt rebounder, and he’s grabbing just 6.8 caroms per game.

Boston often compensates for this -4.4 differential by taking smart shots and playing sound defense against mid-to-lower tier foes. However, it’s difficult to win grind-it-out games against the East’s elite (especially in the playoffs) when you’re consistently out-rebounded.

Stevens’ crew spread the ball around, with six different players scoring nine-plus points. And Thomas made a ton of plays as usual, tallying 27 points and seven assists. But Toronto wasn’t deterred, and it relentlessly attacked the basket. The three-headed monster of Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas was too much for the Celtics. Keith Smith over at CelticsBlog offered an apt analogy for Toronto’s comeback win:

The Celtics landed a lot of punches early, but they felt like jabs. The Raptors may not have landed as many, but they threw some haymakers and uppercuts and that was enough to finish off the Celtics. Sure, Boston won a few rounds, but when it mattered most the Raptors were like Ivan Drago and the Celtics played Apollo Creed.

The Raptors are now 2-0 against the Celtics this season. They made the key plays in the late stages of Tuesday’s hard-fought game. For now, they deserve the distinction of being the East’s clear-cut No. 2 behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.

However, Boston and Toronto will square off twice more in the regular season, and we’ll gain more perspective on what a postseason showdown would look like. Let’s not dismiss what a full-strength Celtics squad could do in a few months.

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