Raptors v Celtics - Game 1 Preview
In so many ways, 2019 feels like so much more than a year ago. Every once in a while though, some familiarity peaks through, like beams of sun through the clouds.
As the Raptors head into their second-round matchup with the Boston Celtics, there’s a tinge of the feeling that met them in late April of 2019 when they got set to tangle with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Celtics are a tough opponent and in the same way that Philly proved to be the Raptors’ greatest challenge in 2019, you wonder if the Celtics could be the same kind of dangerous, tough to bring down opponent this summer in the bubble in Florida.
Here are five storylines to follow as the series tips off on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on TSN.
Basketball’s back, but change is still demanded
The league took a 48-hour break from games after players decided not to play in light of the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisc. It was by all accounts a tumultuous pause in action, where players and the league met and decided to continue on with the season.
The league, working with NBA players, will establish a social justice coalition focused on increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform. Teams that have control of their arenas will offer that space as a voting location for the 2020 U.S. election, allowing for safe, in-person voting during the pandemic. The league will also create advertising spots in each NBA playoff game that will promote civic engagement around national and local elections.
These were central issues to the players that allowed them to feel comfortable with a return to play.
Who’s hurt and how bad is it?
The series will start with ankle issues hanging over both teams. For the Raptors, Kyle Lowry practised on Saturday and is listed as questionable for Game 1, after spraining his ankle in the Game 4 win over Brooklyn to close out the first-round.
It seems like a more serious issue for the Celtics, who lost Gordon Hayward to a grade three ankle sprain early in their eventual sweep of the 76ers. Hayward left the bubble to get treatment on the injury and was projected to be out for four weeks, which would have him out for the entirety of this series.
If Lowry needs more time or is used sparingly to start the series, Fred VanVleet would see his role ramped up, with a trickle down in minutes possibly falling to Norman Powell and Terence Davis. The Celtics replaced Hayward with Marcus Smart in their starting lineup and still managed the sweep against Philly.
Boston’s newest Big 3
From Bird, Parish and McHale, to K.G., Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Celtics thrive on having a three-headed monster of talent for opponents to deal with. Hayward’s departure is a blow to the Celtics, but they still have a talented trio in Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Walker is a consummate point guard with blazing speed and more than capable of dishing off, even if the assist numbers (3.8 per game to lead the team) don’t scream it. He averaged 24.3 points per game against Philly and put up similar numbers against Toronto in their regular-season/bubble meetings this year. Brown will be handful in the backcourt, averaging 20 points and 6.4 rebounds per game this year. Tatum will be the biggest challenge of all. The third-year power forward put up 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game this year.
Even without Hayward, the Celtics should be a very tough opponent.
Spotlight on OG
As he has often in his young career, OG Anunoby will draw the steep task of defending the best player on the floor. That’ll mean whenever you see Tatum sizing up his options with the ball in his hand, Anunoby will be on him, trying to make the next four to seven games as difficult as possible for him. In the first-round sweep of Brooklyn, Anunoby showed well against Caris LeVert. He still had his big moments and games in the series, but Anunoby stymied him when it counted and against a top scorer, that’s what you need from your stopper-type players.
“He’s really working hard (defensively) and taking pride in it and making that part of who he is,” Nick Nurse recently told reporters of Anunoby’s first-round play.
“I know that’s kind of what we needed him to be and what we wanted him to be and what he could do because of his physical attributes and his athleticism. He’s really making it part of what he wants to be and that’s huge. That’s very important.”
Anunoby also showed some offensive burst in that Brooklyn series. He scored in double digits twice, with 12 points in Game 2 and 10 in the Game 4 closeout.
Nice to finally meet you
Despite being two of the top teams in the east for the last few years and somehow through the Raptors’ 25-year history, this is just the first time that they’ll meet the Celtics in the playoffs.
While we still get to see basketball in the bubble, the pandemic denied two passionate fanbases the chance to try to out-do each other from Scotiabank Arena and TD Garden. Both teams have their eyes set on adding to their banner count: The Raptors looking for the back-to-back for what would be their second-ever championship, while the Celtics are chasing banner No. 18, which would add to what’s already an NBA record total.