Game Preview: Celtics at Raptors (Preseason)

BOSTON – If you’re clamoring for some Celtics basketball, it will be time to sit back, relax and kick up the feet at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. That’s when the C’s will return to game action when they take on the Raptors in Toronto during each team’s preseason opener.

Just realize that when you kick those feet up and turn on the television, you might not be watching the best quality of basketball you’ve ever seen.

The NBA is the most elite basketball league in the world, but each team within the league has only been practicing for about a week now. Even calling it a week of practice is a stretch, because every team’s roster has been in constant flux.

For the Celtics, it has meant not a single practice to this point with the entire team on board. The first few days of camp consisted of less than 10 players on the court. Since the roster has been filled out, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce have been nursing minor injuries.

This has essentially been the scene around the NBA to this point, and that’s why Sunday afternoon’s game won’t be a walk-through for the Celtics and Raptors. These two teams will undoubtedly head into this contest with the goal of getting better, and they’ll approach the matchup with a much higher level of intensity than any preseason opener they’ve ever been a part of.

Each team in the league will play only two preseason games, rather than the standard eight, and those two contests will be against the same opponent. The NBA assigned matchups based on geographical location, meaning that in this case, the Celtics and Raptors won’t need to travel very far for their home-and-home set.

Even with the limited travel, Doc Rivers doesn’t believe that’s enough game action for his players to be prepared for the regular season opener. That’s why he held a full-fledged game night on Friday night. He turned the team’s open practice into a legitimate game night scrimmage, with player intros, a national anthem, separate teams, and so on.

The expectation is that playing an actual game on Friday, albeit against their own teammates, will make the players feel as if they’re heading into their second preseason game on Sunday in Toronto.

Still, though, despite the mental illusion that Rivers has built for the players, Sunday will be Boston’s first taste of a team wearing other colors. That’s why this game is likely to be sloppy from start to finish. But that doesn’t diminish it’s importance; these teams only have two dress rehearsals in the holster, and they’ll need to use both wisely.

Here are a few things to look out for when the ball is tossed up for the first time on Sunday afternoon in the Air Canada Centre.

Starters’ minutes

First of all, who will the starters be? Paul Pierce won’t play for the Celtics, but it sounds as if everyone else on the active roster will be ready to go on Sunday. The best guess is that Marquis Daniels will fill in at the starting small forward slot, alongside Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal.

Once those guys get onto the floor, it will be interesting to see how long they stay there. As we’ve said time and time again, this isn’t a typical preseason and Rivers needs to get his players in game shape now, not later. Knowing that, it’s reasonable to expect Boston’s starters to play about 25 to 30 minutes apiece, rather than the mid-teens that they’d usually play in the first preseason game.

On Toronto’s side, things might be a little different. The Raptors are young and growing together under their new coach Dwane Casey. It’s not clear who will fill out their starting lineup, other than Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan, but whoever starts alongside them will likely play big minutes. Casey could easily keep his starters on the floor for more than 30 minutes in this game.

Understanding the system

Sloppy basketball will be displayed throughout this game, there’s no doubt about that. Both teams have a bunch of new players, and the Raptors even have a new coach. With a short training camp and preseason, all of Boston’s new players are trying to learn Rivers’ system, particularly on defense. For Toronto, every player on the team is attempting to learn a new system.

The Celtics have the luxury of having several players who do know the system, and know it well. The players who will start this game have all been here for more than a year, and bench players like Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic know the system after being with the Celtics last season. Still, though, the rest of the roster is cramming to understand the team’s principles.

Everyone knows that Boston will clearly have the advantage in this department on Sunday. Both teams will probably keep it simple and run limited plays on offense, but it’s still going to be difficult for every player on the floor. Rivers and Casey won’t be concentrating on who wins this contest, they’ll be concentrating on which players know what they’re doing.

Who plays with who?

As we’ve already seen in Boston’s open practice scrimmage Friday night, Rivers hasn’t been able to play his real starters or his real bench together. Pierce and Rondo have been out of the lineup, which means bench players have had to fill in with the starters. That’s not a good thing for the Celtics.

However, Boston will be at near full health on Sunday, so Rivers will have a very good opportunity to use a rotation similar to a regular season game. That means his bench players will finally be able to play on the court together and begin to learn each other’s tendencies. The starters already know each other’s tendencies, but they need some time on the court together, too.

Rivers doesn’t have much time to tinker with his lineup and see which players play well with each other. Casey is in the same predicament with his Raptors. They’ll both head into this game with a plan regarding their rotation, which means we’ll finally be able to see which Celtics we can expect to play alongside each other throughout the season.