Game Preview: Celtics at Raptors

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

WALTHAM, Mass. – The talk of the Eastern Conference heading into this season was the improvement of the Atlantic Division, as Boston, New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia had all added major pieces to their teams. More than three months later, the Toronto Raptors (17-31), who host the Celtics (24-23) at 7 p.m. tonight, have finally joined the party.

Toronto traded for one of the league’s premier talents on Thursday when they acquired Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Raptors gave up only a young prospect (Ed Davis) and a large expiring contract (Jose Calderon) to pry Gay away from Memphis.

Gay has been paired up with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to create one of the most athletic perimeter trios in the entire NBA. Paul Pierce is one player who has taken notice of that.

“I watched a couple of highlights with [Gay] and DeRozan and they seem pretty explosive,” said Pierce. “I’ve seen them put up some numbers, but not watching them. So when you add a talent like Rudy Gay to go along with DeRozan and a healthy Kyle Lowry, they have some very good young prospects. They can be dangerous.”

The Clippers, whom the Celtics defeated on Sunday, know all about how dangerous the trio can be. Gay, DeRozan and Lowry combined for 42 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists during a 98-73 win over Los Angeles on Friday night. That was Gay’s first game with the team. The trio was even better in Gay’s second game, which was Sunday against the Heat, as it combined for 66 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

It has been less than a week since the trade, but as Doc Rivers stated on Tuesday, Toronto has drastically improved.

“They’re going to be a much better team,” he said.

DeRozan

The Celtics will be giving the majority of their defensive attention to DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry tonight.
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images

Toronto isn’t the only team showing signs of improvement. The Celtics are playing much better basketball right now as well despite the losses of Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. They have won four consecutive games, including two wins over opponents considered to be title contenders.

Boston has pieced together this winning streak thanks to what Rivers calls “simple basketball.” They’re using true team play to succeed in the absence of their only true point guard and their best rebounder.

“I think the style in which we’re playing right now is ball movement,” said Kevin Garnett. “I think what you see is a balanced attack between multiple people. It’s not just two or three people who’ve got 20, 30 (points), it’s just multiple people having 15, 17, 20 (points).”

The great team play doesn’t stop at the offensive end.

“On top of that,” said Garnett, “we’re getting stops at the other end, shrinking the floor, following the schemes, following the game plan, playing the right way, playing unselfish.”

That’s a long list of positive characteristics the Celtics have been displaying. They will need to showcase that fantastic play again tonight in order to knock off this much improved Raptors team.

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Toronto may be super athletic but it is certainly not known for its defense. The Raptors are in the bottom third of the league when it comes to both opponent scoring (21st) and opponent field goal percentage (25th). Boston knows all about taking advantage of that poor defense.

The Celtics put up 107 points against the Raptors back on Nov. 17 when these teams met in TD Garden. Boston accrued a season-high 37 assists in that game on 43 made field goals.

The ball was hopping for the C’s on that night in a similar fashion to how it has been hopping over the last four games. We already have evidence that ball movement can tear this Raptors defense apart.

Defending DeRozan

DeRozan scored only 10 points against the Celtics back in November but he did make half of his shot attempts. That was against defenders Courtney Lee and Jason Terry, both of whom are at least two inches shorter than DeRozan.

DeRozan’s athleticism and height make him a tough cover for any opposing shooting guard. He can get his shot off at will, and he’s been hitting his shots at will over his past few games. DeRozan has averaged 23.0 points per game over those contests while hitting 20 of his 21 free throw attempts. Lee and Terry will need to concentrate on challenging all of his shots tonight while avoiding fouls.

Don’t Look Ahead

Winning in Toronto hasn’t been an easy thing for the Celtics of late. They’ve lost three out of their last four games in the Air Canada Centre. Tonight’s circumstances won’t make it easy to alter that trend.

Boston is facing a super athletic Raptors team and it also has an important game coming up tomorrow night in TD Garden. The Celtics are scheduled to renew their rivalry with the Lakers on Thursday night in front of a national television audience.

If you haven’t heard, games between the Celtics and the Lakers are a pretty big deal. Boston must keep that Lakers game out of its mind tonight while giving all of its attention to this Toronto team.