Celtics

Robb: Gordon Hayward takes important step forward in loss to Raptors

(Lance King/Getty Images)

If you didn’t think the Celtics’ toughest competition in the Eastern Conference was north of the border heading into this season, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors pretty much made it official on Friday night. Toronto’s 113-102 win over the Celtics had a little extra juice on both sides for the second game of the NBA regular season grind, and it was the Raptors who asserted their will in crunch time, pulling away with an 11-2 run over the final three minutes.

The Celtics are still trying to figure things out as they go right now in large part and that was painfully apparent throughout the fourth quarter of the affair. A few familiar trends revealed themselves in the defeat, along with some newer issues that need to be cleaned up. The transition defense was brutal in large part from the starters in various stretches, which allowed easy buckets for the likes of Leonard (31 points) and company all night long.

Boston’s defensive rebounding also dissipated down the stretch as the hosts grabbed six offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. That’s going to be a recurring problem whenever this group faces a team with length like Toronto, even when they go small.

There was also a second different crunch time lineup for the Celtics in as many games this year as Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier got a shot at minutes late in the fourth-quarter minutes over Jaylen Brown. The revolving door of different combinations in these game-ending spots won’t be ending anytime soon as Stevens tries to balance build continuity versus maximizing his matchup options on any given night. He didn’t push the right buttons in game No. 2 as the C's struggled on both ends of the floor during crunch time.

Still, it’s hard to overanalyze this one too much from Boston’s perspective. The Raptors played great on their home floor and deserved this win. Leonard was a force and his supporting pieces (Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred Van Vleet) all had big nights as well. The Celtics haven’t won in Toronto in three years (seven straight defeats) for good reason and the Raptors team we saw on Friday night may be the best one these Celtics have faced to date.

In order to beat Toronto in May, the Celtics are going to need their own talent to be at their best and that’s why Friday night was a win for Boston in the big picture. While the final result didn’t go their way, one of their All-Stars took a big step forward towards normalcy.