2020 Playoffs | East Semifinals: (2) Raptors vs. (3) Celtics

Series Preview: Defending champions face stiff test from Celtics

2020 series preview: Raptors vs. Celtics

The Toronto Raptors (66) and Boston Celtics (60) are the two teams that have played the most Eastern Conference playoff games over the last six years. But they’ve never faced each other in the postseason … until now.

After completing sweeps in the Atlantic Division semifinals (Toronto’s marked the first in franchise history), the 2 and 3 seeds look sharp. The only issue may be health. The Celtics will be without Gordon Hayward, who suffered a bad ankle sprain in Game 1 against Philadelphia. The Raptors lost point guard Kyle Lowry to a left foot injury in the first quarter of Game 4 against Brooklyn, and his status for Game 1 on Thursday is unknown.

But both teams have played most of the season with one or more guys out. The Celtics have had their top six players available for just 19 of their 76 games, while the Raptors have had their top seven available for 26 of their 76. Both teams feature All-Star leading scorers, but the strength of each is the ensemble. Despite the lack of continuity over the course of the season, they finished with the second- and fifth-best records in the NBA.

The Raptors had the league’s No. 2 defense, which they used to spark a potent transition offense. In the half-court, they’ll move the ball and shoot off the catch. The Celtics were one of two teams that ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they were the league’s best-shooting team off the dribble.

They’re similar, but they’re different. Either could eventually reach The Finals, but only one will make it out of the conference semis.

Three things to watch

1. Be ready for some different matchups. In the season series, Lowry was the Raptors’ primary defender on Jayson Tatum. In fact, only Ben Simmons defended Tatum more than Lowry in the regular season. But the Celtics had all three of their big wings available for all four games, so Toronto had to put one of its small guards on Tatum, Hayward or Jaylen Brown to start each half. With Marcus Smart starting in place of Hayward, Boston won’t have the same size advantage and (whether Lowry is available or not) Toronto could defend Tatum with the 6-foot-7 OG Anunoby instead of a 6-foot or 6-foot-1 guard. The Raptors aren’t loath to switch among their non-centers, so Boston could still seek to get Tatum posted up against Lowry or Fred VanVleet.

2. The Raptors need to make hay with their bench. In the regular season The Celtics were 11.4 points per 100 possessions better with Tatum on the floor (plus-10.6) than they were with him off the floor (minus-0.8). That was the league’s fifth-biggest differential and the it was bigger (27.9 points per 100 possessions) in their first round series against Philly. Tatum’s plus-67 (in 134 minutes) over the four regular-season meetings with Toronto was the best cumulative plus-minus for any player against the Raptors this season, almost double that of any other player (the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell was next at plus-34). If Lowry can play and even if Nick Nurse doesn’t know who his eighth man will be from night to night, the Raptors should have a bench and versatility advantage with Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka, because the Celtics have even more questions beyond their starting group.

3. Which team will play more zone? The Raptors are known for mixing up their defenses and played the third most zone in the regular season, according to Synergy play-type tracking. There’s a decent chance we’ll see a janky box-and-one with Anunoby or Powell chasing Tatum at some point in this series. But the champs also had the league’s least efficient offense (0.77 points per possession) against zone. The Celtics, meanwhile, had the league’s best zone defense, holding their opponents to 0.80 points per possession over 160 possessions (13th most). Those aren’t big sample sizes and after seeing some zone from Brooklyn in the first round, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “We feel pretty good about where we are and our attack of it right now,” adding that he didn’t expect to see much zone going forward. The Celtics only played just one possession of zone against the Raptors over the four regular season meetings (while Toronto played quite a bit in the Christmas game), but a long playoff series offers both the opportunity and the need to mix things up.

The number to know

13 — The Raptors led the league with 18.8 fast-break points per game and they were 23-3 when they had 20 or more. Their ability to run is critical. While they ranked third in transition efficiency (1.15 points per possession), they were just 17th in half-court efficiency (0.96), according to Synergy play-type tracking. But their four regular-season meetings with the Celtics account for four of the 19 times that the champs were held to 13 fast-break points or fewer. The Raptors were without Pascal Siakam (their individual leader in fast break points) for both meetings in December, but the seeding-game meeting was one of the 10 games this season in which he was held without a fast-break point. Interestingly, the Celtics didn’t necessarily sacrifice offensive rebounding to slow down Toronto’s transition game. In winning the season series, 3-1, Boston grabbed 30.4% of available offensive boards (the eighth-highest mark against the Raptors this season) and outscored Toronto, 63-37, on second chance points.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

This has the potential to be a classic. Both teams are talented, versatile and well-coached. With the quality of the two defenses, easy baskets and big scoring runs will be hard to come by. But if Toronto can’t run as much as it’s used to, it may struggle more offensively than Boston. Siakam has had issues with efficiency and the Toronto bigs won’t have nearly the same size advantage that they had in the Brooklyn series. The Celtics are missing one scorer, but still have Kemba Walker, an improving Brown, and Tatum, the guy in this series with the best ability to get a bucket when one’s needed, even against an elite defense. That may be the difference. Celtics in 7.

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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