Series Preview: Celtics vs. Raptors
For the first time in history, the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors will face off in the NBA Playoffs. It should be worth the wait.
These two teams are very evenly matched. Toronto won 53 regular-season games, while Boston won 48. Boston won three of the four regular-season meetings between the teams, although one win was decided by only six points.
Both teams have veteran, All-Star point guards in Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry. Both teams also rely heavily on versatility and feature up-and-coming stars, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on Boston’s side and Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet on Toronto’s side.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important aspects of the series that will tip off at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
Basketball Comes Second
By this point, you'd have to be living under a rock to now know that Game 1 of this series was scheduled to be played Thursday night. Instead, it will be played Sunday afternoon due to the NBA's postponement of games amid the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting.
Players, coaches and executives have made it clear over the past few days that basketball is on the back-burner. The more important topic is continuing to push for the end of police brutality, unequal rights and social injustice.
Players chose to resume games this weekend after deciding that their platform will be most impactful while games continue on. While they will be taking the court for everyone's entertainment on television, do not forget the most important reason they're inside the bubble: to inspire positive change.
Hayward Out, Lowry TBD
The Celtics, unfortunately, know that they will almost certainly be without Gordon Hayward, who sprained his right ankle during Game 1 of the opening round, until the week of Sept. 14. That would extend beyond the Game 7 of this series.
A sprained ankle bit the Raptors during the first round as well, as Kyle Lowry exited Toronto’s Game 4 victory over Brooklyn on Sunday with a left ankle sprain. Toronto has been very coy about Lowry’s health ever since. Lowry was said to have participated in Saturday's practice, but he is officially listed as "questionable" for Game 1.
Boston has already played an entire series without Hayward and is fully aware of and adjusted to how the team must operate without him. The same cannot be said about the Raptors with Lowry, as Toronto played 21 of its last 22 full-roster games with Lowry in the lineup (this discounts Toronto’s final seeding game, during which it rested its top players).
Ball Movement Will Be Key
Boston played a lot of isolation ball and took a lot of mid-range jumpers against Philadelphia during the first round. That isn’t gonna cut it against what Brian Scalabrine recently called the best defense in the league from the Raptors.
There is proof from the regular season with regard to what works and what doesn’t against Toronto’s defense. During Boston’s three wins over the Raptors, it logged an average of 24.7 assists per game. During its one loss to the Raps, it tallied just 18 helpers.
The Celtics need to drive, kick, and drive again against Toronto. If they don’t, and also lack ball movement, it’s going to be tough to win games.
This Round Is a Different Beast
Both the Celtics and the Raptors swept their opponent out of the Playoffs with relative ease during the first round. There is no question that this round will be a far different beast of a challenge for each team.
From Boston’s perspective, Philadelphia lacked skill, organization and effective defense during the first round. Toronto, on the other hand, is loaded with skill and shooters, it is one of the most well-coached teams in the league, and it ranked as the second-best defense in the league during the regular season.
From the other side of the conversation, the Raptors just took on a Brooklyn team that did not feature a single star on its active roster, its defense did not provide much resistance, and it was coached by an interim coach. Boston, meanwhile, has three stars in Tatum, Brown and Walker plus an All-Defensive Team performer in Marcus Smart, it ranked fourth in the league in defensive rating, and its coach, Brad Stevens, is regarded as one of the top tacticians in the league.
Long story short? These two teams are in for a hefty challenge after breezing through the first round.
Battle of the Emerging Stars
Tatum and Siakam are viewed as two of the most promising young players in the league. Although Siakam is four years Tatum’s senior, he is only one NBA season ahead of Tatum in his career.
Their numbers from the regular season are eerily similar. Tatum averaged 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game during the regular season. Siakam, meanwhile, averaged 22.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steals per game during the regular season.
For context as to how they fared against each other during the regular season, Tatum averaged 16.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game while logging his best plus/minus rating against any opponent, at plus-24. Siakam, meanwhile, logged his lowest plus/minus against Boston of any opponent at minus-21 while averaging 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game against the Celtics.
Defending the 3-Point Line
Each team’s ability to defend the 3-point line will be critical to its success during this series. The reason? Both teams are loaded with players who shoot it at a high clip from long range.
Five Celtics who are on the active roster shot at least 36.3 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season. That crew doesn’t include Marcus Smart, who shot a solid 34.7 percent on 3s, and Grant Williams, who since missing the first 25 3-pointers of his career through Dec. 6 has made 37.3 percent of his attempts. Williams has made seven of his 15 attempts since the season resumed July 31.
Every player at the top of Toronto’s rotation shoots it well from 3-point range. Its top seven players in terms of minutes played all shot at least 35.2 percent from long range during the regular season, led by Normal Powell’s 39.9 percent clip. VanVleet, who made 19 treys during four first-round games, was right behind Powell at 39.0 percent.
Make no mistake about it: the 3-point shot will be critical to this series. Both teams can shoot it, and both teams can defend it.