The Toronto Raptors' pulse-quickening 113-101 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday night was noteworthy for a few reasons. Among them: the glimpses of peak Kawhi Leonard, the small but meaningful strides made by Gordon Hayward, the diabolical genius of Kyle Lowry down the stretch, and, more generally, the shot across the bow from one Atlantic Division juggernaut to another. But perhaps the key factor of this matchup to watch as the two teams chart a course toward a potential Eastern Conference final, was the performance and utilization of the bigs.
These teams mirror each other in a lot of ways. They both thrive on depth, athleticism, and defensive acumen. They're both flush with big, versatile two-way wings who can switch, make plays and space the floor. They're both powered in large part by their respective trios of dynamic, hard-nosed point guards. For the most part, the star power in this matchup is concentrated in the backcourt and on the wing, where the likes of Leonard, Hayward, Lowry, Kyrie Irving, and Jayson Tatum reside. But the outcome of Friday's contest was largely decided in the frontcourt, and it's there that the balance of power in this would-be rivalry could ultimately tilt.
Even if you don't consider Al Horford the Celtics' best player, there's no denying that he represents their biggest matchup advantage. There simply aren't many teams who have a counter for a fleet-footed 6-foot-10 center who can screen like a brute, pass and shoot like a guard, abuse mismatches in the post, protect the rim, defend the perimeter, and switch 1-through-5. That unique collection of skills gave migraines to the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Kevin Love in last year's playoffs, and helped bring the injury-ravaged Celtics to the precipice of the Finals. It looms as a potential tactical bugaboo for the Raptors.
The popular story goes that LeBron James stuffed the Raptors into a garbage can and punted them into the sun in each of the last three postseasons, and while that's not entirely inaccurate, it does undersell the role Kevin Love played in the annual abasement. The Raptors were doomed in part by their inability to solve the Cavaliers' five-out lineups. They never found a way to patch the holes in their defense that came open when Love stretched them out. That isn't as major a concern when LeBron isn't there to pull at those holes until the entire cloth comes apart, but Horford's presence still puts Toronto in a bit of a bind; he's a major matchup problem for their skilled but slow-footed center Jonas Valanciunas.
In the past, the Raptors would have started Valanciunas anyway. But new head coach Nick Nurse has made it clear that his lineups will not be as rigid as predecessor Dwane Casey's, and he started Serge Ibaka at center instead. Ibaka still isn't an ideal Horford counter - he struggles to defend laterally on the perimeter, and is liable to drift or overhelp on drives - but he stood a better chance at containing Horford in space and in the pick-and-pop than Valanciunas.
Nurse wound up looking downright prescient, as Ibaka turned in one of his finest performances as a Raptor, not only ratcheting up his defensive activity but popping off at the offensive end for 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He stuck his screens and rolled hard to the rim (two areas of perpetual flightiness for him). Against a Celtics defense oriented to take away paint shots and threes, his mid-range shooting was a nice antidote. The Raptors figured to be vulnerable on the glass with him at the five, but they actually grabbed 52.2 percent of available rebounds in those minutes (though Leonard and Lowry had as much to do with that as Ibaka). Maybe most encouragingly, Ibaka made great reads out of the roll. If he can start consistently making passes like these, Nurse might have to get the whole team on the lamb brain diet.
Ibaka was far from perfect defensively. He still lost track of Horford a bunch (six of Horford's seven 3-point attempts were classified as "wide open" by NBA.com) and got beat out for a few offensive boards. For the most part, though, he was where he needed to be. To wit: watch him and Fred VanVleet execute a seamless kickout switch in semi-transition to get VanVleet off of Horford.
If that's Valanciunas in his place, that switch probably happens a half-step slower, which would've been all the time Horford needed to attack baseline for an easy deuce. Instead, it turned into a bricked fadeaway out of a well-defended post-up.
All told, Ibaka's play was probably the game's biggest swing factor. Obviously, the Raptors can't bank on getting this kind of performance out of him. He's been the team's great x-factor for a while now, and, for all he can do for them, it's clear that consistency will never be his calling card.
In other words, the Raptors are going to need Valanciunas in this matchup more than they needed him on Friday, when he had four points, four fouls, and two turnovers in 14 minutes of action. He and Horford overlapped for exactly two possessions. This was the first.
The second saw Valanciunas get whistled for an offensive foul at the other end 18 seconds later.
Another similarity between these two teams; both seem prepared to mothball the two-traditional-bigs lineups they employed last year. Horford and Aron Baynes played 863 minutes together in 2017-18, but have played just two through two games this season. Ibaka and Valanciunas, who started 72 games together and played 1,476 joint minutes a season ago, have yet to share the floor in 2018-19. So, while Ibaka's minutes shadowed Horford's, Valanciunas got a more natural matchup against Baynes, a similarly earthbound center who doesn't stretch the floor much.
That still posed its own set of problems for Toronto. The thing about Baynes is that he's basically a brick house on wheels, combining great footwork with an extraordinarily wide and solid frame to seal off paths to the rim. Valanciunas' own lack of off-ball gravity meant Baynes could comfortably hang back in the pick-and-roll and make life miserable for Toronto's reserve guards. He smothered Fred VanVleet, who is typically pretty good at turning the corner and burning backpedaling bigs. And poor, foolhardy Norman Powell tried Baynes four times at the rim, getting stymied each time.
The Raptors scored just 82.9 points per 100 possessions with Baynes on the floor, but fortunately for them the Celtics had as much trouble scoring as they did in those minutes.
It will be fascinating to see if or how these big-on-big pairings change down the road. Can Ibaka continue to anchor a starting unit that has relied so heavily on Valanciunas' screens to carve out space on offense, and his rebounding to finish possessions on defense? For that matter, would the Raptors try matching Ibaka against Baynes to try pull him away from the basket? Will either team be willing to upsize? Do Greg Monroe and Robert Williams factor in at all?
These are the two best teams in the East, and they're so well-matched and so similarly constructed that there's going to be an increased focus on tactical maneuvering when they play each other. It has the makings of a great chess match. And in chess, as everyone knows, it's the biggest pieces on the board that matter most.
(GIFs courtesy: Sportsnet)