The Boston Celtics won their streak of seasons against defending champion Toronto Raptors 3-1, including a 122-100 blast three weeks ago, but Celtics manager Brad Stevens dismissed this as meaningless. “What matters,” he said Tuesday, “is how we play Thursday and beyond.”
Thursday has come and gone, and the way Boston plays when the second-round streak starts on Sunday seems to hardly matter. At Saturday’s Stevens ‘Zoom press conference, no one asked any questions about basketball – all everyone wanted to talk about was the Milwaukee Bucks wild strike, the NBA postponing three days of games and the commitments that came from the players’ meeting. with team owners. The same was true of the media availability of Raptors manager Nick Nurse.
The NBA bubble nearly burst before the second round of the playoffs began because players are tired of police officers shooting at unarmed blacks. The players have chosen to stay in Orlando, so the games will go on, as will our coverage. As insignificant as it may seem, here are some facts about the Celtics-Raptors series:
- Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable for Race 1 with a sprained left ankle, but he trained on Saturday. The nurse said she “looked fine”.
- Gordon Hayward left the bubble due to a Grade 3 right ankle sprain and is not expected to play in the series.
- Both teams are coming out in the first round against opponents who were not at their best: Boston beat the Philadelphia 76ers, who were without Ben Simmons, and Toronto tormented the Brooklyn Nets, who missed Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie , DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and Nicolas Claxton (and they only had Joe Harris for the first two games).
And here are 10 questions:
1. How serious is Lowry’s injury?
If Lowry is sidelined or downgraded, the Raptors have little room for error. “I think Lowry is one of the most underrated players in the league,” Stevens said on Tuesday, specifically pointing to his defense. I’m not sure if that label still applies to Lowry after last year’s title race, but Stevens was quite right in saying he’s “everywhere” in defense. Off the ball, no guard is more disruptive.
The Raptors went 12-2 without Lowry in the regular season, and the lineup with Norman Powell alongside the other four starters dominated the 201 minutes they played, scoring more than-16.8. The biggest concern, however, is the cascade effect.
Toronto doesn’t have a true third point guard on the roster, and rookie Terence Davis will presumably take on the backup role if Lowry misses at any point. Nobody should underestimate Fred VanVleet anymore, but part of what makes the Raptors special is that they have Two Guards of one meter and eighty who make moves, shoot 3 deep, set screens as big, force turnovers, defend the pole as big and box out as big.
2. Can Boston make up for Hayward’s absence?
Hayward and Lowry are completely different players stylistically, but they have a few things in common: they can play in any type of formation, they don’t need the ball to be effective, and they won’t be targeted in defense.
The Celtics are lucky to be able to slip Marcus Smart in place of Hayward. However, he is an over-qualified sixth man and will make the starting lineup even better in defense.
Smart is reliable when performing pick-and-roll, but unlike Hayward, it’s not a one-on-one threat. This makes Boston less scary: What sets this team apart from other contenders is that opposing defenses had to enter every game concerned about Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker is Hayward does plays in solitary confinement. Jaylen Brown is still developing in this area and Hayward’s absence increases the difficulty level because the spacing will be worse and Brown may be protected by a better individual defender.
Without Hayward, the Celtics are still a versatile team with multiple directors. He’s a connector, however, the kind of player who can score a series of individual points alongside a bunch of reserves at the start of the second quarter. He will miss him.
3. Is the Toronto half-court offense good enough?
Anyone who thought the Raptors would take a big step back without Kawhi Leonard was wrong, but not because they magically offset his ability to score against a fixed defense. Toronto’s midfield bout has dropped from eighth to sixteenth this season, according to Cleaning The Glass, and Boston’s midfield defense is in fourth place.
Raptors skeptics think they will have a hard time finding good looks in high pressure situations. They point to the relative inefficiency of Pascal Siakam as a protagonist, the length of the Celtics, and how the attack got bogged down in last season’s second round against the Sixers. Believers will point to their success at the critical moment.
Toronto will enter the series knowing that Boston will change everywhere, trying to stop its offensive flow. Some teams try to counter this with relentless matchup chasing, but the Raptors’ philosophy is to try to ignore the switch and keep running their stuff. If the ball movement and the player’s movement are good enough, they can naturally find discrepancies and take advantage of defensive mistakes.
One variable to keep an eye on: Marc Gasol’s playing time. He no longer dominates the dudes on the post, but still made a star impact on the Toronto bout in the regular season – they scored 99 points for every 100 possessions in the half court in Gasol’s 1153 non-junk minutes, for cleanup The Glass, and only two teams (Dallas and Milwaukee) have scored more efficiently than that. Sometimes, “improving your teammates” isn’t just a cliché.
4. Can the Celtics choose and cast this defense to the death?
Even without Hayward, Boston is difficult to defend in pick and roll situations. This is mainly due to Walker’s creativity and the fact that both he and Tatum can get into pull-up 3, but it’s also because they span the floor well and their screens set real screens.
The Raptors, however, make ballhandlers think and ended the regular season with the second best defense in the league. They won’t let Walker and Tatum get comfortable and they certainly won’t let them see the same pattern over and over again.
“Toronto confuses their covers,” Stevens said. “They are excellent at this. They keep you off balance. They are excellent at this. They feel comfortable taking risks because they play so hard to make up for it.”
The Raptors have aggressive perimeter defenders and force a lot of turnovers. Boston rarely commits turnovers and taking care of the ball will definitely be a point of emphasis. You can expect Toronto to try to turn Tatum into a passerby and to try to get the ball out of Walker’s hands when playing in heavy formations.
5. Can VanVleet continue like this?
VanVleet shot 19 of 34 (55.9%) from 3 points in the Nets series, picking up where he left off in last year’s Finals. More importantly, though, he got to the edge efficiently, overtook exceptionally, and provided his usual brand of stubborn defense.
There will be doubts about VanVleet’s ability to keep him offensive against Boston, especially if Lowry isn’t playing or he’s not himself. He’ll likely be Walker’s main defender, and he’ll also have to get into the paint, finish contact, and save the Raptors when time is running out.
6. Can Walker be exploited?
Walker is an annoying and intelligent perimeter defender, but just like Stephen Curry was for the Golden State Warriors, the elite defenders around him make him the de facto weak link in Boston. Toronto knows how important it is to the Celtics attack, so it has to get him to work on the other side.
That doesn’t mean the Raptors will pick Walker as the Utah Jazz targeted Michael Porter Jr. – Boston is adept at changing discrepancies and will consider it a win if Toronto ends up trying to isolate itself against him or post repeatedly. The nurse should try to put him in awkward situations, though, and this is where it helps Toronto guards to be such good fencers.
7. What about the Boston bench?
There are a lot of smaller questions here: How much do you trust Stevens, rookie winger Romeo Langford? When Daniel Theis takes his place in Race 1, will he be replaced by Enes Kanter or Robert Williams III? Will Grant Williams continue to do his 3 and Semi Ojeleye can start doing it?
Each of these answers is more important due to Hayward’s absence, and reserve guard Brad Wanamaker is also an obvious X factor. The Celtics aren’t known as a particularly deep team, but they have to find a way to get by when Tatum is on the bench: this was one of their few difficulties against Philadelphia.
8. Can the Raptors run?
I can’t believe I’m just getting to this now. Toronto wants to run all the time and only the Bucks have run more than they did in the regular season. No one defends in transition better than Boston, however, which presents an obvious problem.
If the Raptors can catch up and find opportunities to push the ball out of live rebounds, maybe they can beat Boston without putting up impressive numbers in the half court. Siakam is especially dangerous in the open field and you can expect the Celtics to treat him the same way they treat Giannis Antetokounmpo: sprinting back and building a wall.
9. Can Anunoby slow down Tatum?
Toronto forward OG Anunoby is often assigned to the best winger on the opposing team, and has the speed, strength and length to annoy (theoretically) Tatum. Athletic’s John Hollinger premiered this bout in early July, calling it “the first edition of what could be a decade of fighting between the two.” Defending Tatum will be a team effort, but this is an opportunity for Anunoby to show how much he has improved.
“He has shown a very high level of interest in becoming a defensive catch,” Nurse said. “You know what that means, he’s working on it, he has a little desire, it’s a sense of pride for him to go out and play hard in defense and protect the best players in this league.”
At its best, Tatum is in that category. When it hits side-step 3 and contested pull-ups, there’s nothing anyone can do. It’s Toronto’s job to get him to take the hard ones, and Anunoby plays a leading role in that.
10. How different will this series be in some games?
Any idiot of X and O will tell you this is the best coaching match in the playoffs. Stevens and the nurse have already changed series with adjustments and it will be fascinating to see how this evolves.
I highly doubt that the rotations and defensive assignments of these teams in Game 4 will be the same as in Game 1. They may not even be the same after the interval in Game 1.