If it doesn’t feel like Christmas morning, you must not have a pulse.
The Toronto Raptors welcome the Celtics tonight, and more so than the animosity that always exists between these divisional rivals (though we shouldn’t ignore that), tonight could go far in deciding who ends the year as the Eastern Conference’s top seed. The Celtics come in 39-15, two games up on the 36-16 Raptors. This is the second of four meetings, as the two will meet twice in the last week of the regular season.
Yeah, this is more than just numbers though. With the precipitous and embarrassing fall of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the last month, it’s starting to feel like Boston and Toronto have to duke it out as the heir apparent. The door has never been more open for a challenger to LeBron James’ waltz to the Finals. Who is better suited to walk through it?
The two teams have arrived here in different ways. Boston’s a team that thrives in close games, a mediocre offensive team that find ways to snag wins through defense and timely shot-making. Case and point: the Celtics’ most recent win against Portland.
Toronto, meanwhile, prefers to win walking away. Their +7.5 point differential shows how they’ve been blowing out teams — most recently the Grizzlies by 15 on Sunday. When games are close, they’ve tended to flounder. We saw that when Boston beat Toronto 95-94 back in November, a memorable example of simpleton play-calling down the stretch.
So yes, please get excited about tonight. Know this too: the Raptors may be dodging bullets. Kyrie Irving has made the trip to Toronto, so there’s a good chance he’ll play, but a quad contusion is keeping him on the injury report. Marcus Morris is there too, so Boston may be missing two starters.
Let’s assume full strength on full strength, though. Both teams understand the importance of this one. After all, it’s Raptors Christmas!
Here are the details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch
TSN 1/4, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Boston - Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Aron Baynes
Toronto - none
Boston - Kyrie Irving (questionable - quad contusion), Marcus Morris (bruised hip - questionable), Gordon Hayward, Shane Larkin, Marcus Smart
Find the Clutch Gene
We’ve harped on the Raptors’ late-game execution. Against the Celtics, though, it’s warranted — and almost assuredly will be the decisive factor if this is close down the stretch.
Boston is so good in the late moments, it almost feels like they have horseshoes up their collective butt. They lead the league with 22 clutch wins (games decided by five points or less in the last five minutes of a game), and have a league-best, truly ridiculous true shooting percentage of 63.8% in those games. For god’s sake, Marcus Smart — who broke his hand on a picture frame — has made game-saving shots for this team.
Toronto is not this kind of team. Their true shooting percentage is just 51.8% in clutch games (20th in the NBA), and you don’t need fancy numbers to see the issues. Play calls have been too easy to guard, DeMar DeRozan pick and rolls have been predictable, and sometimes the shots by supporting actors just don’t go in.
In this game, the Raptors have to channel Kyle Lowry’s Philadelphia Eagles and throw the damn playbook at Bill Beliche- sorry, Brad Stevens and the Celtics. I want to see the best stuff Dwane Casey has in the bag if this is a close game late. You know the Celtics have shot-makers in Horford and Irving. Whether Lowry and DeRozan — or the supporting cast that thrive off their looks — can answer? That’s the biggest question of this matchup.
The first time these two teams met, the Raptors were in a different place with their rotation. Jonas Valanciunas had just 18 minutes, grabbing just three rebounds and marking a -6. His lack of playing time was a big reason the Raptors were out-rebounded 46-36. With 17 more shots put up, the Kyrie-less Celtics were able to win shooting just 40% from the field to the Raptors’ 46%.
Valanciunas, though, has been a different man in February. He’s had four double-doubles in the last seven games, and hasn’t marked a negative plus-minus since January 15. He’s been rewarded with minutes, playing at least 23 in the last seven.
Against Boston, Jonas’ success may come down to matchups. With Marcus Morris out, he gets a more traditional matchup with professional injury-causer Aron Baynes. If Morris plays, Valanciunas has a more difficult task hanging with Al Horford — who stretches to the three-point line.
In the latter scenario, look to the adjustments made by Valanciunas between the two Minnesota games played on January 20 and January 30. In the first, his minutes against the rangy Karl-Anthony Towns were a let-down. He got in foul trouble, couldn’t stay on the floor, and allowed Tom Thibodeau’s team to wash Toronto on the boards. On the 30th, though, he played clean and beasted — finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
One of the most remarkable things about this stretch from Valanciunas is that Casey is trusting him in bad matchups. The Raptors have figured out defensive schemes to protect Jonas in situations where he’s facing mobile bigs, and it’s allowed them to keep their best rebounder out there.
In order to win that board matchup, they’ll need a similar kind of strategy and an energetic performance from their big Lithuanian.
A pillar of change for the Raptors this year has been their bench. While they’re a selfless, fun group that surprised opponents in the first few months of the season, this month has been more up and down. Good defensive teams are preparing for the inside-out, transition style of play that the bench thrives on. More often than not, it’s been the starters bailing out the second unit — though when guys like Fred VanVleet play well, the team tends to win.
VanVleet and C.J. Miles — both off the injury report for this game — have missed time and are maybe the key members for bench success. VanVleet is playing the best ball of his young career, shooting over 50% from three over the last ten games. Miles just makes everything easier, providing a three-point threat from everywhere on the floor. With opponents worried about those two, the rim opens up for professional mayhem-makers Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. Delon Wright and Norman Powell find easier creation paths to the basket.
Against a good defensive team like the Celtics, you need those pockets to open up. Expect lots of Miles, VanVleet, and maybe some Lowry to prop up the bench. This needs to be a statement game for Toronto’s second unit, and it would be made all the easier if they’re at full health.