In a final portion of the schedule dominated by favourable matchups and (we hope) easy wins, the Toronto Raptors get a few games that would really help build their collective confidence. Tonight against Boston is one such game.
Although it seems unlikely that the Celtics would catch the Raptors in any playoff seeding scenario — Boston is 6.5 games back of Toronto — there’s some bad mojo lingering from the last time these two teams met.
In that January 16 win by the Celtics, Boston closed the game on a 17-4 run, another one of many games this season where the Raptors looked somewhat inept in late-game situations. They also couldn’t lock down Kyrie Irving, who had what might still be his best game of the season, as he finished with 27 points and 18 assists.
Now, Boston has a 2-1 season series lead heading into tonight’s game, as the Raptors are hoping that they won’t end the night with their first losing record versus the Celtics since 2012-13.
Doing that will take more cohesiveness than we saw Sunday against the Magic, as a classic trap game scenario caught the Raptors napping — Orlando’s 113-98 win snapped a seven game win streak for Toronto. The Celtics are also coming off a particularly ugly loss, as they fell to bottom-dwelling Chicago on Saturday, 126-116.
It’s a common thread, too: both teams have been somewhat guilty of being a “turn the switch” team this season. That said, the switch should be turned on for tonight — a Raptors-Celtics matchup has rarely disappointed over the last few seasons.
Here’s the details, then we’ll get into what to watch for.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 8 PM ET
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Boston - Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford
Toronto - Fred VanVleet (thumb - OUT)
Boston - Aron Baynes (foot - OUT)
A New-Look Bench
The last time these two teams met, the Celtics bench — led by 18 points from Gordon Hayward — soundly beat a Raptors secondary unit that was in the deep trenches of their shooting struggles. Now, many of those faces have changed. Fred VanVleet is injured, Delon Wright and Greg Monroe are gone, and in their place we’re getting plenty of rotation minutes from Patrick McCaw, Jeremy Lin, and Jodie Meeks.
Watching how the bench minutes play out will be very different, and very interesting, in tonight’s game. When the Celtics have been good, it’s been because their energy-packed bench have injected some life into their starters. Guys like Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown don’t have an off switch and Hayward is starting to play more like himself.
Staggering Kyle Lowry could be a great strategy for the Raptors tonight. He’s been excellent running pick and roll with Marc Gasol with the bench shooters (Meeks, Lin) flanking him. While Gasol is in the probable starters, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nick Nurse went back to Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup matchup with Al Horford, leaving Gasol to play maestro with the bench. In a critical battle of second units, having Lowry and Gasol’s passing to combat the Celtics’ energy would be great to see.
The Kyrie Matchup
Kyrie Irving’s play has been as unpredictable as his quotes off the court during this second half of the season, but he never misses an opportunity to light up another Eastern Conference team.
Given that the Raptors have Kawhi Leonard to protect against Jayson Tatum, how they handle the pairing of Kyrie and Al Horford will again be the best predictor of their success in this game. A lot of this comes down to Kyle Lowry’s engagement on the defensive end. In addition, it’s likely we see some of Danny Green on Irving in an individual matchup.
It’ll also be important for the Raptors to end possessions without second chance opportunities. They’re in luck a bit here with Aron Baynes sitting out, as the big man had four offensive rebounds in the last matchup. Still, this is a Celtics team full of guards who love to crash the glass, making the effort plays from guys like Lowry and Pascal Siakam even more important.
Run the Offence
A lot of what made Sunday’s Orlando game such a frustrating experience for the viewer was the Raptors were freelancing much of their offence, including a lot of perimeter passes and standing around.
It feels like the team is still figuring each other out in this regard. There could be more cutting when Marc Gasol has the ball in the high post. There could be more decisive offensive execution when guys are playing one-on-one. There could be more pick and roll in general.
While Boston isn’t quite the defensive juggernaut that experts predicted coming into the season, they’re still a team that often has their head on straight on that end. The Raptors need to be a lot more purposeful in running their offence and finding tactics that work (think Danny Green posting up Steph Curry in the Golden State matchup earlier this season) so they can exploit Boston.