Celtics

5 takeaways as Celtics beat Raptors for back-to-back road wins

In one of their more gutsy performances of the season, the Celtics claimed another road win on Monday.

Celtics Raptors
Jaylen Brown and the Celtics, here pictured earlier this season, took on the Raptors on Monday. Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Celtics quietly put together one of their more impressive wins of the season on Monday, claiming a 116-110 victory over the Raptors — their second straight to start their road trip, and their second game in as many nights.

Here’s what happened.

The Big Picture

Like the Heat — and even the Nets for stretches on Sunday — the Raptors defended the Celtics aggressively from the jump, occasionally trapping and double-teaming Jayson Tatum while pressuring Celtics ball handlers in an effort to get out in transition. The Celtics won the first quarter by two, but the Raptors took a 62-56 lead into halftime.

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In the third quarter, however, the Celtics exploded — a 35-18 beatdown, which included 17 points from Tatum and one of Marcus Smart’s better two-way stretches of the season.

The Celtics pulled ahead by as many as 13 in the fourth before the Raptors came roaring back and made the last few minutes competitive. But the Celtics got just enough offense and a couple of key stops to seal the win. For the Raptors, Monday’s loss dropped them to 9-3 at home.

Star of the Game

Jaylen Brown: 22 points, 9-for-22 shooting, eight rebounds, eight assists, zero turnovers.

Tatum was the game’s high scorer with 31, and Brown missed a lot of 3-pointers, but he is now turnover-free for two consecutive games, in addition to his impressive box scores.

What It Means

The Celtics claimed a hard-fought road win on the second night of a back-to-back, beating a Raptors team that is really good at home despite a frustrating first half. The Raptors were a puzzle, but the Celtics solved them after just two quarters.

Not a bad way to hit the road.

Takeaways

1. The Celtics were frustrated by several things in the first half, including the officiating — the Raptors took 20 free throws to the Celtics’ nine. The Celtics also committed 11 first-half turnovers and allowed the Raptors to get out in transition consistently, which is the way they like to play.

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The second half, however, was a completely different story, and a real testament to the growth of the Celtics over the last calendar year or so. While they were frustrated by the first-half foul calls, they kept grinding away and remained in the game in a way that might have eluded them last year — the lead was just six at halftime when it easily could have been double-figures.

In the second half, the Celtics slowed the game down to a snail’s pace. That suits them significantly better — the Celtics have the league’s best half-court offense (108.5 points per 100 possessions), while the Raptors have the second-worst half-court offense (and one of the best offenses in transition).

The Celtics were also without Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon (not to mention Robert Williams), which put more pressure on Tatum and Brown. No problem — one scored 31 points, and the other neared a triple-double. Add Marcus Smart back into the mix (18 points, seven assists, two steals), and the Raptors couldn’t keep up for 48 minutes.

The Celtics are not infallible, but they are elite. On Monday, they figured out how to beat a hyper-aggressive Raptors team that looked to push on every single play, even though they were on a road back-to-back and frustrated by the officiating.

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However the rest of this road trip goes, the Celtics are showing some real mettle and grit over the last few games after weeks of pristine basketball.

2. With Horford on the bench, Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet put together an excellent game. Kornet continues to be a presence at the rim and a lob threat offensively, and he looks increasingly comfortable in the pick-and-roll (per Synergy, he’s up to 1.38 points per possession as a cutter and an outlandish 1.92 PPP as the roll man, in a small sample size).

But Griffin was the real star of the center rotation. Throughout his career, Griffin has absorbed a lot of contact from opponents, and he’s tough as nails when colliding. On Monday, he posted 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting as well as eight rebounds and a key put-back that iced the game for the Celtics. He also threw down another dunk in his continued quest to make everyone stop asking about his age.

“I figure if I dunk once a game people will stop acting like it’s a miracle,” Griffin told reporters after the game.

The Raptors play a lot of lineups that make sense for Griffin — their rangy wing/forward lineups don’t have a lot of explosiveness that can take advantage of him. But against teams that like to play bully ball, Griffin is yet another in a series of players who can contribute in a genuinely productive way for the Celtics.

3. Marcus Smart is, of course, an elite defender, but Monday’s game (as well as his absence on Sunday) was a reminder of how good the Celtics’ offense is when he’s on the floor this season. Smart doesn’t always shoot 4-for-8 from deep, but he guides the offense and makes everything smoother for the stars.

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4. Teams have caught on to Sam Hauser (scouting report: you need to guard him no matter what), and his 3-point percentage has dropped a bit (albeit not far). On Monday, he finished 1-for-4 from the field including a wide-open triple at the end of the first half that visibly bothered him.

But Hauser is getting better defensively, and teams still insist on attacking him whenever they get the opportunity. Hauser might be the Celtics’ weakest link, but he’s not as bad as teams seem to think, and like Griffin, a team that doesn’t have as much explosion can’t always get by him.

Pascal Siakam is, of course, a lot to handle though.

5. And finally, we saw a new wrinkle in the Celtics’ strategy of letting the ball roll out with the clock running (but the shot clock stopped). With seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Smart gambled (or read) that Gary Trent Jr. wouldn’t go for the ball, so he stayed with the odd-looking play for several feints by Trent before finally grabbing it nearly 20 seconds later.

The play ended with Jaylen Brown’s lone three of the night, which meant the Celtics wound the clock down more than a shot clock’s duration while still getting a good look and three points with 14 seconds left in the possession.

At some point, presumably, that play will backfire, but Mazzulla seems to have unearthed a fun gimmick for now.

The Celtics travel to take on the Suns on Wednesday. The game tips off at 10 p.m.

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