When the Raptors look up, it is no longer just the Cleveland Cavaliers that they see — a rather unfamiliar feeling that seems quite foreign during this wave of Raptors basketball. With the Boston Celtics officially in the Eastern conference’s second seed, its time for the Raps to dig deep and rediscover what has allowed them to graduate into one of the NBA’s more elite teams over the past few seasons.
The last contest between these two Atlantic division rivals saw a furious fourth quarter run by the Raptors propel the good guys to the 114-106 victory and a 2-0 record. The Raps would be down by as many as 16 in the second half, but a season high 41 points from DeMar DeRozan (including 12 in the final six minutes) would lead the charge to victory.
Boy, have things gotten interesting.
The script of the NBA season is often volatile and can be flipped in an instant. Two weeks ago today, the Raptors held a 2.5 game advantage over the Celtics with a game in hand. A couple of sloppy weeks of basketball later and they have found themselves a half game back of Boston and in danger of slipping out of the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors have lost six of their last eight games and were only able to muster two road wins in the month of January. The Celtics on the other hand have won four in a row coming into Wednesday’s contest and have gone 7-3 over its last ten.
The Raptors have been able to find excellent success against the Atlantic division this season and hope that this trend can continue tonight. They have posted a league best 9-1 record against divisional opponents this season, dropping the only game to Philadelphia just two weeks ago.
As announced by coach Dwane Casey, DeRozan will sit tonight while tending to his swollen ankle. For the Celtics, it is unlikely that Avery Bradley will be in the lineup tonight, as he has missed his last seven games with an Achilles injury.
Here are some things to keep in mind for tonight
Little Men, Big Game
Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry have been simply incredible this season. One could argue that they should even be the backcourt starters in this years All-Star game instead of Kyrie Irving and DeRozan. Regardless, both men will be representing their teams at the game in New Orleans — for Thomas his second All-Star appearance and for Lowry, his third.
If this one is tight down the stretch, expect a showdown between Thomas and Lowry, as they have literally been the best fourth quarter players in the NBA this season. Thomas leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring this season with 10.3 points per-quarter and Lowry is just behind in third at 7.9 points per-quarter. The two have also been the most efficient fourth quarter scorers in the league at 48.2% for Thomas and 47.5% for Lowry. From beyond the arc in the fourth quarter (minimum two attempts), they rank second (Thomas 42.7%) and third (Lowry 41.6%) behind only, you guessed it, Langston Galloway.
This table displays and compares each players hottest month of the season. It’s clear how much both Lowry and Thomas’s hot play work in symmetry with their teams success.
Let’s See it, Sully
The Jared Sullinger experience to this point has been underwhelming to say the least. Since returning to the Raptors lineup, Sully has averaged 3.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per-game on a painful 25% shooting in 12.8 minutes a night. Defensively it hasn’t been much prettier, as the Raptors have a minus net rating in every lineup featuring Sullinger thus far. It’s more of an unfortunate coincidence than anything, but the Raptors are also 0-6 in games with Sullinger in the lineup this season.
Heading into Boston will provide Sully with a chance for redemption in a building that he called home for his first four NBA seasons. Dwane Casey opted to keep Sullinger out of the lineup against the Pelicans last night, so look for the big man to log some minutes with the Raptors down a body on back-to-back nights.
Coaches Can Be All-Stars Too
Implications will be high for the men both on and off the court, as head coaching duty for the Eastern Conference All-Star team is also at stake tonight. The same coach cannot fulfill the duty in consecutive seasons and therefore, the door is wide open for Casey and Brad Stevens. After all, these guys are All-Stars.
Casey is the only coach in professional sports to have improved his team’s record over five consecutive seasons. He and General Manager Masai Ujiri have worked wonders and built a consistent winning basketball culture in Toronto for the first time ever. At just 40 years of age, Stevens is currently the fourth youngest coach in the NBA and is in his fourth season with Boston. He has taken the Celtics from 25 wins in 2014 to 40 wins in 2015, up to 48 wins last season. Under his wing in 2016 the Celtics are on pace for their highest win total since the 2010-2011 season.
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