A year ago at this time, the Boston Celtics were a middle-of-the-pack team, 13-11, and seemingly on the long road to nowhere. They had a below-average offense and there were murmurs that it was time to split up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
In a league that's constantly about 'what have you done for me lately?' it would have made sense to make some big change. Why didn't they go harder after Paul George or Anthony Davis? Why didn't they blow it up?
"I think you want to instill trust in the guys," said Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla ahead of Monday's 116-110 victory over the Toronto Raptors. "It’s not always going to be easy. I think that’s not only as an individual but as a team."
The Raptors are following that same recipe. Patience, Masai Ujiri repeats every season. That doesn't mean there won't be changes. Even the Celtics, a team loaded with players they've drafted and developed, have made savvy moves, dealing first-round picks for key depth players when the opportunities have popped up. They key for Boston has been riding out the highs and lows.
"We’ve had some battles. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve cried, we’ve bled, we’ve sweat," Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. "We’ve done it all together."
For Toronto, success is about being methodical, trusting in the system, and wading through noise.
Just think of where Pascal Siakam was two years ago, battling through the COVID-19 pandemic and unable to generate anything against the Celtics in the Orlando Bubble. Back then, there were calls for Toronto to move on, tank, and give up on the then-26-year-old All-Star. Imagine if they had.
Today, it's Boston on their heels against Siakam who has blossomed into a true three-level scorer and one of the league's most dynamic offensive weapons. He's confident going right at Smart, taking the reigning Defensive Player of the Year off the bounce and blowing past him for buckets at the rim as he did to open the second half. When the Celtics played back, daring him to shoot those same shots he couldn't make in the Bubble, he'd pull up, dropping 29 points on 9-for-20 shooting.
“This year, [it] doesn’t matter what obstacle is in front of him, he’s going to continue to keep going," Smart said of Siakam. "We all know what type of player Siakam can be and is.”
Toronto will need that same patience with Scottie Barnes who has and will continue to have a tumultuous sophomore season. Monday, though, showed the offensive upside of the 21-year-old who came alive in the fourth quarter with 11 of his 21, trying to will the Raptors back with his usual inside attack game. When the Celtics collapsed into the paint to stop him midway through the quarter, he found Thad Young for a corner three, cutting the Celtics' lead to just eight. He then took it deep inside, converting the and-1 bucket over Grant Williams with two minutes to go.
"I'm a big fan of Scottie's," Celtics star Jayson Tatum said. "But the cat's out of the bag. He's not surprising people anymore. ... People know what he's capable of and know how talented he is."
If Monday was a "measurement game," as Raptors coach Nick Nurse said pre-game, the Raptors measured up OK. They jumped up 10 points in the first half before the offense went silent in the third and the lead quickly vanished. Tatum picked apart Toronto's high-pressure defense in after halftime, scoring 17 of his game-high 31 points in the third quarter and kept the Raptors at bay in the fourth.
"I thought we played well, we had a chance to win," Siakam said. "When we focus and everybody's healthy, everybody's playing the way that we know we can play, I don't think I fear anybody really, to be honest."
Up Next: Los Angeles Lakers
The Raptors will welcome LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers to town on Wednesday night for a 7:30 p.m. ET tipoff.