The Toronto Raptors are once again in a 2-0 hole in the NBA playoffs. Last year, they fell two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals before Kawhi Leonard led them all the way to an NBA title.
On Tuesday, they lost 102-99 to the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the semifinals, but this time, they don’t have Leonard to help them dig out — the Celtics’ fourth-quarter comeback left the defending champions with little margin for error.
Who can replace Leonard as the Raptors’ No. 1 option on offense? Can coach Nick Nurse finally trust his bench? Our experts break down the four questions Toronto needs to answer — and fast — to save its season.
Can Pascal Siakam play like a No. 1 offensive option?
The lack of a superstar has loomed large in this second-round series. Even without Leonard, Toronto thrived throughout the regular season and in its first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. But against Boston, the Raptors look exposed.
If anyone’s going to carry that mantle with Leonard playing for the LA Clippers, it’s got to be Siakam — a first-time All-Star who is the closest thing to a go-to guy in Toronto’s balanced starting lineup. The 2018-19 Most Improved Player award winner saw his usage rate skyrocket from 21% of the team’s plays last season to a team-high 28%, albeit with a corresponding drop in his true shooting percentage from a hyper-efficient .628 mark to right around league average (.554).
Against the Celtics’ stout defense, Siakam hasn’t even been able to get close to that kind of efficiency. After shooting 5-of-16 from the field in Game 1, Siakam followed with a 6-of-16 effort Tuesday. That makes this stretch one of Siakam’s five worst consecutive games of the season in terms of shooting percentage.
Siakam isn’t overreacting.
“I think I had a lot of good shots that didn’t go in,” he said. “I just have to keep working to get the shots that I want and live with the results. I think as long as I take the shots that I want, I can live with me missing.”
It’s not been all bad for Siakam, who was able to make plays for his teammates in Game 2, handing out six assists. And he remains a strong, versatile presence on the defensive end. It’s also understandable he’d struggle against the Celtics, who can throw multiple long, athletic defenders at him, plus a veritable linebacker in Marcus Smart.
But if the Raptors are going to again rally from a 2-0 deficit, they’re going to need someone to step up offensively. Last year, that was Leonard, who defended Giannis Antetokounmpo at one end while scoring 36 points on 12-of-13 shooting at the other in their double-overtime Game 3 victory. This year, Siakam is their best hope. — Kevin Pelton
Can the Raptors get back to making 3s?
When Leonard chose to leave Toronto last summer, the Raptors knew they wouldn’t have an obvious go-to scorer to lean on in the playoffs. As the Raptors have gone through this season, they’ve honed a formula they hoped would allow them to defend their title: play defense as well as any team, and supplement the offense by knocking down lots of 3-pointers.
Even as the Raptors have dropped to 0-2 to the Celtics, the defense has held up. Boston has several explosive scorers in Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown, but hasn’t scored enough to prevent Toronto from chances to win.
The Raptors are in a 2-0 deficit because their 3-point shooting has completely disappeared.
In Game 1, Toronto shot 10-for-40 from 3-point range. In Game 2, the Raptors improved by one, going 11-for-40 from 3-point range. Shooting 26% from 3-point range is not going to be good enough for the Raptors to continue their title defense.
“We know if we keep shooting those same shots, we’re going to make them,” OG Anunoby said. “We know we can shoot.”
He isn’t wrong. Toronto had the fifth-best 3-point shooting percentage in the league during the regular season. The Raptors have gotten lots of open looks so far in this series. But if they don’t start going in soon, the series won’t last much longer.
“We got enough good looks to win the game and to play better,” Kyle Lowry said, “but when we got stops, we missed some shots in transition. I missed a couple of threes in transition, Pascal missed some, he missed a couple of bunnies, Freddie [VanVleet] missed an open 3.
“We had opportunities, man. We had opportunities. We just didn’t finish.” — Tim Bontemps
Fred VanVleet goes for the game tying shot, but it falls short as the Raptors lose to the Celtics in Game 2.
Who steps up from the bench?
While we can certainly point to Toronto’s inconsistent shooting from 3 and Siakam playing like a role player instead of an All-Star, Nick Nurse’s lack of trust in his second unit is key.
Aside from Serge Ibaka, Nurse is relying on Norman Powell, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson when his starters are resting. In the Game 2 loss to Boston, Powell played 13 minutes, Boucher played 9 and Davis 6. The other guys didn’t play.
Fred VanVleet, now a starter, was the trusted sixth man on last year’s championship team. He averaged 24.7 minutes during the playoffs and was a key contributor off the bench. This year, they don’t have that luxury. Can they find another reserve to trust with a larger role?
Nurse has often maxed out his starters’ minutes this season — VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Siakam and OG Anunoby all played 38 minutes or more in Game 2 — but a 2-0 deficit could force Nurse to adjust and stretch his rotation. — Bobby Marks
How to step up in the clutch?
Entering Tuesday night, including the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors were 26-12 in games determined in clutch time, within five points in the final five minutes. That .684 winning percentage was second in the NBA, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For a while on Tuesday, it looked like Toronto wouldn’t need a clutch performance after pushing its lead to 12 late in the third quarter and taking a 78-70 lead into the fourth quarter.
Instead, they couldn’t account for Marcus Smart draining five 3-pointers early in the fourth, giving Boston an 86-85 lead on a four-point play with 7:55 to go.
After briefly regaining the lead on the next possession, Toronto saw it disappear again as Kemba Walker converted a layup on the other end. After that, the Raptors didn’t get the lead back. Toronto had one more chance in the final seconds but VanVleet’s last-second 3 missed the mark.
“The shots are there,” Lowry said. “We just have to make them.”
In all, Toronto went 5-of-21 in the fourth quarter and 1-of-11 from 3. That was the most 3-point misses in the fourth quarter in any game in Raptors history and it was the second-worst fourth-quarter field-goal percentage the entire season. To come back in this series, the Raptors need to find a way to win these close games. — Andrew Lopez