Bright spots emerge for Raptors, despite another tough loss to Celtics

Let’s talk bright spots.

Even during the dark cloud that has been the Toronto Raptors season, they exist.

How about Precious Achiuwa?

Until Saturday night he’s not risen quite to the level he was at after the all-star break last season, but as he round into shape after missing 24 games with an ankle injury, there’s more glimpses of that player than the one who looked lost in an NBA game at the start of 2021-22 or even the one who wasn’t sure how he fit into one in the early going this year.

There was plenty of them during what turned out to be a 106-104 loss to the visiting Boston Celtics that – like so many others of late – was there for the Raptors to win.

There were shots missed, turnovers made, a weird call leading to a jump ball and confusion that followed.

But the Raptors have lost several games like it this year – some in the last few days – so nothing to get too carried away with.

Toronto fell to 20-27 with the loss to the Celtics, who improved to a league-best 35-12. Boston was playing without MVP candidate Jayson Tatum and lost Robert Williams and Marcus Smart over the course of the game. It didn’t matter. Boston is so deep they could turn to Payton Pritchard – effectively their fourth-string point guard – for 12 points in the fourth quarter to compliment Jaylen Brown’s 27 and 25 and 23 from Grant Williams and Malcolm Brogdon, respectively, off the bench.

The Raptors shot 53.5 per cent from the floor and 37 per cent from three while forcing Boston into 15 turnovers to 14 of their own, but the Celtics shot 16-of-35 from deep. Toronto got to the line seven times, to 15 for Boston.

Toronto led by one after the first quarter and four at halftime and to start the fourth, but were outscored 25-19 in the final 12 minutes.

But the Raptors did have some things to be encouraged by, Achiuwa’s all-round play among them.

Late in the second quarter the third-year big got the ball on a slow-developing fast break, hit the gas and blew past everyone on the floor before finishing under control around Celtics big man Al Horford. A play before he strung out Celtics point guard Derrick White all the way to rim. A play after he set a screen, rolled down the lane with speed and finished through contact with his left hand.

At the end of the third quarter, he attacked Brogdon, spun off his body as the Celtics guard flopped in hopes of drawing a foul and finished with an elegant finger roll. Just before that he swatted Brogdon’s lay-up off the backboard and nearly to halfcourt. He finished the quarter with a step-back three in the corner, turning and letting the Boston bench know about it.

Achiuwa doesn’t turn 24 until the eve of training camp next season and has a combination of abilities that just aren’t found very commonly. You have to be encouraged. He finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and three blocks in 37 minutes, starting in place of Fred VanVleet.

Or how about VanVleet? After a miserable start to the season, he’s looked more and more his old self. In the three games before Saturday night’s meeting with the Boston Celtics at Scotiabank Arena, the veteran point guard put up 32.3 points and 8.3 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 48.4 percent from three. That he had to sit out Saturday’s game – the first of a back-to-back with the New York Knicks in Toronto Sunday – with rib soreness kind of sums up his season, but there’s no question he’s been better recently.

But his absence meant there were some extra touches to go around, and for the most part, the Raptors took advantage.

Gary Trent Jr. is having his best season, his numbers at career highs across the board save a miserable slump in November. OG Anunoby is getting deserved all-defense buzz is shooting 39 per cent from three since mid-December. He hit a pair of clutch threes in the fourth quarter to help Toronto push the Celtics to the limit. He likely got fouled on a drive that would have tied the game in the final seconds. He finished with 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting and added three steals and three assists.

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Pascal Siakam is plugging along at 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the season and showed how – when his mid-range jumper is falling – he’s one of the most difficult covers in the game. Big defenders or small defenders, he’s got a solution. Siakam finished with a game-high 29 points while contributing 10 assists and nine rebounds. The only blemish was that he couldn’t quite get Toronto over the hump. He missed a jumper over Al Horford with 1:49 left, a free throw with 1:15 the clock, and then got tied up by Al Horford on a drive with eight seconds left and the Raptors needing a score to tie.

There was some controversy over that call as it appeared Horford had slapped the ball loose and Siakam had recovered it. Instead, the referees ruled it a jump ball situation. Nurse wanted to review it and called time out to do it, but then he was told the jump ball call could not be reviewed but they wouldn’t restore his final timeout. That proved costly as a Celtics turnover gave the Raptors the ball again with 3.8 seconds to play. Instead of drawing up something the Raptors just had to go, and Siakam lost the ball in traffic at mid-court leaving another wise brilliant game by him with a sour taste to it. It’s been that kind of year.

But the most encouraging development of the past few weeks has been the turnaround engineered by second-year wing Scottie Barneswhich is fitting, because the step back he seemed to take in the early stages of this season was as much a cause and a symbol of the Raptors’ struggles.

How the rest of the season unfolds is anyone’s guess. The math makes a run at anything other than a play-in spot unlikely – the Raptors would have to play at roughly 57-win pace to get to the minimum 45 wins it will likely take to finish sixth – which means Toronto could well be sellers at the trade deadline when everything else is factored in.

But if the final 41 games are looked back as the point where Barnes got his groove back and built on the foundation of a remarkable rookie year? Well, 2022-23 might ultimately be a successful year after all, regardless of what the record ends up being.

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Coming into Saturday night’s game the signs are there. Barnes was averaging 23.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks on 55 per cent shooting in his last five games. He’s shown himself able to read matchups better, taking advantage of the extra room to maneuver he gets when other team’s centers are match-up while not being shy of using his game power to overwhelm bigger and smaller players alike. His passing is getting tidier and more intuitive – there have been few high turnover games and if his defense is still a bit more of an adventure than it should be, the level of engagement seems higher than in the dark days of December .

Barnes wasn’t as good as he’s been of late against Boston, finishing with 10 points and five assists. He started strong – he had seven points and two assists in the first quarter. But as the game went along and first Trent Jr. and then Siakam and Achiuwa took hold of the game Barnes allowed himself to be pushed aside somewhat. He showed up defensively down the stretch with some tough shot contests, but offensively he didn’t get his hands on the ball enough to be a factor.

That’s been a theme at times too as Barnes has allowed quarters and even halves to pass without him using his talent put a stamp on them. That’s something that needs to be addressed and might have been the difference last night.

Heading into the fourth quarter Barnes was leading the team – among the league leaders – in fourth quarter scoring, averaging 7.8 points a game. But he was scoreless in the heart of the game against Boston.

Like so many things this season, even the good has had its share of not-so-good. Even the bright spots have smudges.

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