It’s the game of the year, essentially.
The Raptors are entering a gauntlet of the ages beginning with Saturday night’s game in Boston. It’s prime-time, and it’s critical. It’s the first of three games against the Celtics and Cleveland — the truest test Toronto has faced in the 2017-18 season; one which featured signature wins versus the aforementioned Cavaliers, and the Houston Rockets — the best team in the league.
The game has major seeding implications aside from the clout gained should they rack up wins. With a loss on Saturday, the Raptors would have a tenuous hold on the 1-seed in the East (a two-game lead), and in a worst-case scenario, could end up as the second seed by next Thursday.
With the doom and gloom scenarios out of the way, the Raptors can essentially lock themselves into the top spot with two wins against Boston over the next week — by winning the season series tie-breaker.
Overall, the good news for Toronto is bad news for Boston — a shameless case of schadenfreude viewed through the lens of rabid NBA fandom — the Celtics are banged up; nearly their entire roster is broken-down from top to bottom. However, Boston keeps winning, and that’s helped propel Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens to the forefront of the Coach of the Year conversation next to Dwane Casey.
Without a doubt, the two teams have been entwined by parallel narratives all season — even if they aren’t the same explosive story-lines akin to some others around the league — making each team a train barreling down the same set of tracks, destined to clash in the postseason.
Toronto should be at full strength on Saturday, unless DeMar DeRozan’s status is changed before tip-off. DeRozan left the team on Thursday in order to be with his father in Los Angeles. He returned on Friday to prepare for the prime-time match-up.
Despite missing most of their firepower, Boston has proven to be a tough out over the last two weeks. Guard Kyrie Irving is set to miss around six weeks of action — pushing a potential return deep into the playoffs. Meanwhile, starting centre Al Horford and forward Marcus Morris have both missed time in the past two weeks.
Here are your details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet One 7:30 pm EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Boston — Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Guerschon Yabusele, Aron Baynes
Toronto — none
Boston — Kyrie Irving (Out), Marcus Smart (Out), Daniel Theis (Out), Gordon Hayward (Out), Al Horford (Questionable), Marcus Morris (Questionable)
This is the type of game that will bring out the best of every Raptor. Expect the bench to show up and attempt to run the Celtics down early. The last time these two clubs met, Boston had Kyrie Irving in the lineup and the Raptors were still able to build an early lead to essentially end the game in the third quarter.
C.J. Miles finished the Feb. 6 date with 20 points, while Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet chipped in with 14 and 10 respectively. You also might remember that game as one of Serge Ibaka’s most impressive defensive performances of the year: he consistently met Al Horford at half-court and shut down the C’s starting center, and major facilitator, from the get-go.
Horford finished with two points on just 1-of-5 shooting — one of his worst performances of the season. Ibaka will need to be a key component if Toronto wants another dominant defensive showing on Saturday.
More of That Backcourt Defense, Please
Speaking of tight defense, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet should prove indispensable in the effort to slow down Boston guard Terry Rozier, who has spent his time in the starting lineup lighting nets on fire. Shooting 39 percent from deep on the season, Rozier has improved that number to 41 percent and 3.5 threes made per game since he replaced Irving as starter.
Kyle Lowry, Wright and VanVleet should provide more than enough resistance needed to contain Rozier.
Wright looked more like himself against the Nuggets on Tuesday, providing his usual presence in passing lanes and initiating a couple fast-breaks by himself. In the few games previous, Wright’s pesky defensive style was inexplicably absent, and it showed. Toronto forced fewer than ten turnovers in two straight games — an area they usually excel in.
They both began the year equally exceptional; however, OG Anunoby is still trying to break through his rookie wall, while Jayson Tatum seems to have put the worst of his rookie year in the rear-view mirror. Anunoby is still irreplaceable in the starting lineup thanks to his ability to play lock-down defense, and based on the last two games, it appears his offense is beginning to reappear as well.
On the other hand, Jayson Tatum is excelling on offense in Irving’s absence, and his long-range shot is better than ever. Anunoby will have his hands full in the first quarter of Saturday’s game (this would be the perfect game to play him in the second half) and his contributions on the defensive end could provide a tangible difference.
In all, containing both Tatum and Jaylen Brown should be at the top of the Raptors’ to-do list heading into the match-up.
If they can keep Boston from getting hot from deep, the Raptors stand a chance to wreck the Celtics. Boston has been one of the worst post-scoring teams in the league over the last month, while also suffering from debilitating stretches of cold-shooting. If Toronto’s high-powered offense can overcome Boston’s elite defense, they have the firepower needed to strike a crippling blow when the Celtics’ offense shuts down.