I was lucky enough to be one of the fans in the sold out crowd at the Scotiabank Arena for Kawhi’s debut. As you can imagine, the excitement in the air was embodied by the omnipresent post-fireworks smoke. Loud cheers erupted from the crowd every time he touched the ball (even though it resulted in three early misses), and you could just tell the Raptors are in for the most exciting year in franchise history. For a diehard basketball fan, every game is must-watch TV. If you derive pleasure from watching two human beings bond, then watching Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry develop chemistry over time supersedes even the best romantic novels.
Will these two be able to lead the Raptors to their first ever NBA Finals appearance? I’d like to say yes, but I truly have no idea at this point. As exciting as tonight’s game against the Celtics is going to be, I urge you to take the results with an exceptionally large grain of salt. After one game, everybody’s still figuring it out: Boston’s Kyrie Irving shot 14.3 percent from the field in his debut, and both Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens are still tinkering with lineups. The regular season just started, and it’s going to take some time to get adjusted.
Don’t get me wrong, though — I’ve been waiting months for this match-up, and this game should prove to be exhilarating. Ever since the Kawhi trade, it feels as though the media (or at least Bill Simmons) has largely underplayed the Celtics’ health issues while exaggerating Leonard’s injury. This narrative seems completely unfounded, as there should be equal concern directed towards both Gordon Hayward and Kawhi, who both missed nearly an entire season of basketball (not to mention Kyrie’s injury concerns).
As the two projected best teams in the Eastern Conference battle it out, we’ll get to monitor each team’s overall health, while being treated to some of the best basketball the NBA has to offer.
Here are tonight’s details:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One, 8:00pm (EST)
Raptors – Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka
Celtics – Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford
Raptors – Chris Boucher, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby (GTD)
Celtics – Jabari Bird (Inactive)
Propensity for Defensive Intensity
Both the Raptors’ and Celtics’ defenses have been held to incredulously high standards. Kyle Lowry is often touted as an adept, bellicose defender but saw his Defensive Real Plus-Minus (an estimation of individual impact on team defense) rank drop from third amongst all point guards in the ‘16 and ‘17 seasons to 12th last year. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, has never been an apt defender.
That said, no team in the NBA has pristine defenders at every position, and the Raptors and Celtics are still likely going to rank amongst the best defending teams in the league. From Pascal Siakam to Jayson Tatum to Delon Wright (hopefully playing tonight) to Jaylen Brown there are a multitude of defenders on each team; this game will likely come down to who can find more (and capitalize on) elusive gaps in the opposing team’s defense. Also, if Kyrie and Hayward don’t combine to shoot 6-for-26 this game, it would certainly help the Celtics’ chances.
As you probably know, Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific leg injury, sidelining him for all but the opening five minutes of the season last year. Kawhi Leonard’s injury, while less gruesome, proved to be equally troublesome — his injury, alongside other factors, culminated in his departure from San Antonio. Both players have had ample time to rehab their injuries, but a question mark is still warranted.
Kawhi has played well thus far for Toronto, but certainly displayed some rust he’s yet to shake off (his explosiveness and decision-making have both been far from mid-season form). Gordon Hayward struggled in the preseason, shooting poorly in three games played (25% from the field). He followed up his disappointing preseason with a somewhat lacklustre season-opening performance, chipping in just 10 points and five rebounds on inefficient shooting (33% from the field). It will be interesting to see how those two in particular keep up on offense against two of the league’s best defenses.
As I suggested at the beginning of this article, it is commonplace in sports media to exaggerate wins and put too much stock in losses — especially in the first week of the season. Nick Nurse is still trotting out strange lineups (e.g. C.J. Miles, Leonard, Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell — what on earth?), and two of Boston’s best players barely played all of last season. Chemistry still needs to develop on both sides, and the rhythm of the game will come with experience.
In other words, don’t worry too much about the results. Instead, get excited: watching top-level basketball coupled with a newfound rivalry makes for incredibly entertaining television.
(P.S. I have Kyrie and Hayward in our Raptors HQ fantasy league this year, so I’m sort of hoping they play well. Feel free to roast me all you want, I deserve it.)