Achiuwa proves himself as a starter in loss to Boston
TORONTO – We’ve reached the point in the Toronto Raptors’ season where each game feels like a parody of the ones that came before.
Miss either of this week’s losses in Milwaukee or Minnesota? Not to worry. Just catch the next contest and you’ll be all caught up. To see one is to experience them all.
So when the Raptors took a four-point lead into the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against the first-place Boston Celtics, you had a pretty good idea of how things might play out.
Boston opened the frame on a 9-0 run, forcing head coach Nick Nurse to call a quick timeout and get most of his starters back on the floor. Despite scoring 85 points on 56 per cent shooting through the first 36 minutes, the offence ground to a halt.
They made enough plays to hang around. Gary Trent Jr. hit a couple of clutch three-pointers inside of the final four minutes, ultimately tying the game. However, a hot-shooting role player – in this case, Payton Pritchard, who knocked down four threes in the quarter – put the Celtics on top. And after a few dubious calls from the officials, a couple of wasted timeouts from Nurse, and a Pascal Siakam turnover on the final possession, the Raptors came up just short again.
Even without MVP candidate Jayson Tatum in the lineup, and after Marcus Smart and Robert Williams left injured in the opening half, Toronto had its hands full. The Celtics are an NBA-best 35-12 and have won nine games in a row for a reason. They’re deep and talented, a legitimate title contender, if not the favourite. Still, this was another missed opportunity.
Over the last three games, the Raptors have dodged five all-stars – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and now Tatum. Smart, Williams and Brook Lopez, who was ejected with nearly seven minutes remaining in the Bucks game, each left early. They led by at least nine points in each contest, including an 18-point advantage against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Yet, they have a record of 0-3 to show for it.
They’ve dropped these past two contests by four points combined after being outscored 52-36 in the fourth quarter, falling to 20-27 on the season and a league-worst 2-9 in games decided by three points or less.
“It’s tough,” Siakam said after scoring a team-high 29 points to go along with nine rebounds and 10 assists in the 106-104 loss to Boston. “It’s hard because there were so many games where it felt like we did a lot, a lot, a lot of good things. Couple mistakes here and there and you pay for it. It sucks because I feel like there were definitely a lot of games we could have won.”
“We’re chipping away, playing better and better but we’ve gotta translate it to winning. I’m optimistic that we will. I just feel like the guys are coming together and we’re playing better. I can sense that. It’s gonna translate to winning soon.”
We’re also at the point of the season where finding a silver lining or two in defeat can feel like a victory. On Saturday, that bright spot was Precious Achiuwa.
The third-year forward got his first start of the season when Fred VanVleet was ruled out with sore ribs. Then, once O.G. Anunoby jammed his ankle and left the game in the second half, they leaned on him even further. Achiuwa was so good in his season-high 37 minutes, it’s a shame he didn’t play one more because it may have been the difference between a win and a loss.
With Achiuwa on the floor, the Celtics shot 38 per cent and were outscored by 13 points. In his 11 minutes of rest, they hit 12 of their 17 attempts and outscored the Raptors by 15 points. Achiuwa and Siakam were both on the bench when Boston went on that 9-0 run to start the fourth. They both checked back in at the timeout and would end up playing all but 105 seconds of the second half.
“I thought his fight and compete level were as good as they could be,” Nurse said of Achiuwa, who finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. “We certainly needed him for the matchups out there tonight and he played very well. I didn't think he showed any signs of being fatigued, which is great because that's a lot of minutes for him.”
Prior to Saturday, Achiuwa had not logged more than 28 minutes in any of the 10 games he played since returning from an ankle injury that cost him nearly two months earlier this season. But not only does he seem to have his conditioning and rhythm back, he’s starting to look like the player that emerged for the Raptors over the second half of last season.
The 23-year-old continues to show flashes offensively. He’s been more decisive and under control on his drives to the rim. He even hit an impressive, albeit surprising, step-back three-pointer from the corner late in the third quarter. He’s made strides on that end of the floor, but he’s already elite defensively, and that’s where he can really help his struggling team.
Coming in, the Raptors had allowed 121.6 points per 100 possessions over the previous six games, ranked 27th in the NBA during that span. Saturday’s defensive performance, holding Boston to 110.4 points per 100 possessions, was their best since the Jan. 8 win over the Portland Trail Blazers and third-best this month.
After Jaylen Brown got off to a hot start, scoring half of his club’s 26 first-quarter points, Achiuwa switched onto the all-star guard. Then, with Toronto exercising caution and holding Anunoby out, Achiuwa served as the primary defender on Brown for most of the second half. According to NBA.com, Achiuwa guarded the Celtics star on 26.2 partial possessions and held him to four points on 2-of-9 shooting. Brown scored 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting against everybody else.
“I enjoy playing defence,” Achiuwa said afterwards. “It was my assignment at a point in the game to defend him and I just took it.”
That’s what makes Achiuwa so unique as a defender, and so valuable. On one possession in the third quarter, he forced Brown to the baseline and poked the ball away. A few minutes later, he spiked a Malcolm Brogdon layup off the backboard and initiated a transition opportunity for Siakam. Not only is he the Raptors’ best rim protector, but he also possesses the lateral quickness to hang with guards on the perimeter.
“We know our potential on the defensive end,” said Achiuwa. “Underachieving right now is really bothering me and I think a lot of other people in the locker room as well.”
That’s why, regardless of what shape the season takes over the coming weeks and following the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Achiuwa should remain in the starting lineup for the duration.
With VanVleet expected back soon – he’s considered questionable for Sunday’s game against New York – that would leave Trent as the odd man out. That’s not a perfect solution either; he’s played well recently and the starting unit could use his shooting and scoring. Still, he’s shown that he can make an impact as a reserve, and they could use an offensive punch off the pine as well. Boston’s bench outscored Toronto’s 62-14 on Saturday, though Brogdon and Grant Williams (who combined for 48) played starters minutes in the second half due to the injuries.
As long as the goal is to remain competitive, Achiuwa’s defensive presence with that first unit gives them the best chance to win games. And if they eventually decide to pivot and prioritize the future over the present, getting a player who figures to be a big part of that future as many reps as possible would seem prudent.