Celtics

Celtics nearly beat the Raptors without their best players: 5 takeaways

"We had our chances, honestly."

Celtics Raptors
Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart passes the ball under pressure from the Toronto Raptors. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

The biggest takeaway for the Celtics from a short-handed 115-112 loss to the Raptors on Monday wasn’t that a potential playoff opponent at home needed overtime to beat the Celtics without Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford on the second night of a back-to-back (although all of the above was certainly noteworthy).

Rather, the biggest takeaway was that the Celtics — despite all of their absences — felt like they let one get away. They have become a team that believes they should win even when they probably shouldn’t.

“We had our chances, honestly,” Ime Udoka said after the game. “Didn’t defensive rebound well and turned the ball over and gave them 13 more shots — all the areas they’re really good at. We kind of aided them tonight.”

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Marcus Smart took an opportunity to be the primary scorer and ran with it to a season-high 28 points. Derrick White dished out eight assists. Grant Williams and Aaron Nesmith both pitched in. Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet got extended run (and looked solid in their roles). In all, the Celtics played like a team excited for an opportunity rather than one intimidated by sudden responsibility.

“We have an identity,” Smart said. “We built that. Early on in the year we were looking for it, trying to find it, and we went through those struggles. Now we’ve had a little success, we know who we are defensively. Culturally-wise, we know who we are and who we want to be.

“So to be able to have guys come in and keep that culture alive, it just speaks volumes to what Ime and everybody on this roster has done to prepare for that. We had to go through some stuff that we would probably never want to go through again or endure. But it’s part of it and those types of moments make you stronger for moments like this.”

Other takeaways

2. In extended minutes, Sam Hauser showed his feathery touch from 3-point range for the first time this season.

Hauser looks like he could be more than just a shooter, defending multiple positions better than one might expect. Hauser stayed in front of Precious Achiuwa in particular and refused to let the muscular forward push him around, but he also moved his feet nicely isolated against Fred Van Vleet.

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Would the Van Vleet matchup hold in the playoffs? Probably not, but Hauser just needs to be able to do his job on the defensive end to build a role in the NBA. His 3-point shooting will keep him in the league if he can hold up defensively, and it will be interesting to see if the Celtics — for whom shooters are particularly important, given their strength on the wing — make a move to try to keep him this offseason.

3. Pascal Siakam finished with 40 points and punished the Celtics offensively in the first half with 21. Siakam has some offensive issues, but his ability to smash into the paint and wreck havoc with his spin move caused the Celtics a lot of problems (which reared their head again late in the fourth).

The Celtics probably aren’t sweating about facing Siakam and the Raptors in the postseason — the absence of Brown, who defends Siakam very well, was notable on Monday — but it was a reminder that a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo will require everything Al Horford and the burlier defenders on the team can give if the Celtics face the Bucks in the postseason without Robert Williams.

4. The Celtics were happy to dare the Raptors to shoot 3-pointers, and it worked for most of the game — the Raptors finished 10-for-39 from behind the arc. With the exception of a couple of big triples by Van Vleet in the fourth quarter, the Raptors were hopeless from deep. Ever since Kawhi Leonard left, they have struggled to score in half-court sets, and the Celtics nearly exploited their lack of spacing to a win.

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A 26-10 advantage in points off turnovers, however, is tough to overcome in a three-point overtime loss. Defensively, the Raptors clamped down at the right times, and the Celtics coughed up 17 turnovers — 11 of which were charged to Smart and Williams — and entirely too many led to easy layups and dunks.

5. The Celtics weren’t just playing hard for pride — the loss dropped them to fourth in the standings after they took over the No. 1 seed with Sunday’s win over the Timberwolves. They are a game behind the first-place Heat, along with the 76ers and Bucks (who lead the Celtics by percentage points).

It should be noted that fourth wouldn’t be the worst landing spot: If the season ended today, the Celtics would take on the Bulls in the first round and the winner of the Heat vs. the second-place play-in team if they knocked off Chicago. Avoiding the Bucks and Nets in the first two rounds wouldn’t be a bad result.

Still, the Celtics are very much in play for the 1 seed: Their next game is a head-to-head against the Heat on Wednesday.

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