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Ranking the key players in the Raptors vs. Celtics series

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After years of avoiding each other in the playoffs, the Raptors and Celtics will face off in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals starting Thursday. Here are the most important players in the series.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In last year’s playoffs, when the Raptors prepared for their terrifying showdown against the Philadelphia 76ers, we convened with Liberty Ballers to determine a ranking of the key players in the series. (My pick of Kawhi over Embiid turned out to be correct, by the way.) It was, all things considered, a nice time.

Now fast forward to today. The Raptors are in the playoffs again and once again in the second round — for the fifth straight time — only they now Toronto’s long-time erstwhile nemesis, the Boston Celtics. I use those qualifiers because the Raptors-Celtics rivalry is an obscure one to define. Both squads are in the Atlantic division, and both have maintained a consistent presence in the post-season over the past half-decade, despite having never met there (ever). And while there will be no home and away games in these Bubble playoffs, we know the fanbases for both teams are, let’s say, wild. (The online chatter is already reaching a fever pitch.) There will be no love lost here, is my point — and an unbiased analytical approach is almost completely impossible. This won’t stop me from trying, of course.

So, unlike last year’s friendly meet-and-greet with the Sixers, we will be maintaining radio silence with Boston and Celtics Blog for the time being. This means I alone will be calling the shots here and doing the full-on assessment of both team’s players. Don’t like it? Tough!

In that spirit, here is the official ranking of the key players in this Raptors vs. Celtics series.

The Fringe Parts

17. Enes Kanter

I dearly hope coach Brad Stevens finds some minutes for Kanter in this series. Please let him try to defend some Raptors’ pick-and-rolls! The people of Toronto need this!!

16. Grant Williams

Like much of the Celtics’ bench, rookie Grant Williams exists in that indistinct 6’6’’ to 6’8’-sized middle ground. (See also Robert Williams, who I’m told is a separate and distinct guy.) He’s asked to defend a few positions and take a few shots. Obviously, he’s not tasked with doing much more than that in Boston’s rotation. What we’ve got here is, perhaps, a higher floored-player, thanks to his place in the Celtics’ system, but one with a ceiling already set.

15. Terence Davis

Unlike Williams, the ceiling on Davis feels like it is still very much forming — or always on the verge of collapse. Against the Nets in limited (or blowout) minutes, TD showed what kind of noise he can bring to a game: sudden hammers at the rim, threes on target, and a certain confidence (too much at times) that can help. He may not play much at all in this series or he could tilt a game in the Raptors’ favour. It’s all on the table with Terence.

14. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

Without Patrick McCaw, Rondae has become the Raptors’ de facto eighth man. He’s also the only rotation piece they have who cannot — and will not, and should not — shoot, but he makes up for that lack of skill by being in as many places as he can be at once. Against the multi-headed wing attack of the Celtics, Hollis-Jefferson’s presence on defense may help, even in spot minutes.

The Necessary Pieces

13. Brad Wanamaker

With Marcus Smart inserted into the starting lineup, the 31-year-old Wanamaker is now Boston’s most significant bench player. [Extremely online guy voice] Let that sink in. As a steady guard for the Celtics, Wanamaker will have his hands full in this series. Almost any time he’s on the floor he’ll have to deal with one of Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet, which promises to be, uh, a difficult experience.

12. Marc Gasol

It pains me to put Gasol down this low in the rankings, but as we saw in the Nets series, there may not be as much of a role for him against the Celtics. Given the plethora of wings and dynamic forwards on both sides, it feels inevitable we’ll see a gradual downsizing in both lineups and a speed increase across all quadrants. Gasol is steady on defense, and can hit threes — and there may be a place for him in a super-sized bully-ball lineup — but I’m getting this sense he will just not factor in as much as we think.

11. Daniel Theis

Theis, meanwhile, is the ideal centre for the Celtics. He’s mobile and durable, can hit an outside shot when called upon, and most importantly: he doesn’t need — or even want — the ball to make an impact in a game. Unlike his previous matchup against Joel Embiid, Theis will not have the same defensive load to carry against Toronto (at least not when matched against Gasol), which will help the Celtics. As a result, look for Theis to make his presence felt.

10. Serge Ibaka

After saying all that about Theis, we must add: Ibaka brings all of those skills — and more. Yes, he was being guarded by non-forwards by the end of that Nets series, but Ibaka was also just playing out of his mind. The three-ball was working, all of his post moves were going, the jumper was there, and he was active on defense, blocking shots and snaring rebounds. Theis is a solid player, but Ibaka has been a force in the playoffs (on a championship team!) and will be a load for Boston.

The Key Figures

9. OG Anunoby

It is absolutely true that Anunoby’s defense will be of immense value in this series for Toronto. In many of their schemes, the Raptors can switch him onto any of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and/or Jayson Tatum, which will be significant to their success. So then why is OG down here in the rankings? Because he still has something to prove with his offensive consistency. He was solid on that end against the Nets (particularly with his new spin move and via his strength at the rim), but can he do that while also defending All-Star-level players? We’ll see.

8. Marcus Smart

Yes, sure, Smart is the spiritual and emotive leader of the Celtics and whatnot, but like OG, he’s also still an up-and-down player offensively. He’s gotten more post-season reps and has more wild confidence — and his defensive utility and toughness is even more expansive — but Smart will still be the guy the Raptors let shoot from deep (at least compared to Boston’s other wing players). And minus Gordon Hayward, it means Boston will have to rely on Smart even more, which could prove to be a risk.

7. Norman Powell

Powell gets the nod here — ahead of OG and Smart — because his floor-to-ceiling gap remains the highest. If Toronto gets the Player of the Week version of Powell, the one that has him cutting up defenses, hitting over 40 percent on threes, and making smart decisions with the ball, that’s a huge, huge win. If he struggles off the bench against Boston’s headier defenders, suddenly things get much tighter for the Raptors. It’s not the future we want to see.

6. Kemba Walker

Walker is an explosive scoring guard, the kind of speedster who has often given the Raptors fits in the past. Over the first four games of the 2020 playoffs, his scoring numbers have slowing increased, capping off with a 32-point performance in Game 4 against the Sixers. It’s obvious Kemba has big game talent, but it remains to be seen if he can execute on this bigger stage, his first time in the second round of the playoffs — and against a team like the Raptors, who actually give a damn.

5. Fred VanVleet

VanVleet has been the Raptors’ most consistent player in these playoffs, and he’s done it in a whole bunch of different ways. For one, he’s shooting 56 percent from three in the post-season (compared to Walker’s 30 percent), he’s averaging 7.8 assists (compared to Walker’s 3.8), and he’s still providing solid defense on every dude he’s pushed to guard. The Celtics are a smarter and better team than the Nets, of course, but it’s hard to imagine VanVleet won’t figure out a way to solve them, leveraging his abilities to help the Raptors however he can. At this point, I certainly wouldn’t bet against him.

4. Jaylen Brown

Credit to Brown for figuring out his place in the constellation of personalities and talents on these Celtics. (Losing Kyrie Irving probably helped in that regard.) Over the past season, Brown has settled into being the team’s lead two-way player, a wing averaging over 20 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three, while also working to shut down his opponent’s top scorers. There’s a surgical calm to Brown’s game now that goes a long way towards stabilizing the Celtics. He’s been the metronome by which they can set their pace. Given the backcourt he’ll be tasked to work against now, Brown’s significance in this series is hard to overstate.

3. Kyle Lowry

As talented as Brown is, he still hasn’t actually done the things Kyle Lowry has already done as the leader of the Raptors. This shouldn’t be a mystery by now. All I can add here is: let’s hope Lowry’s ankle is fine by the time Game 1 tips off on Thursday.

The Difference Makers

2. Pascal Siakam

As much as we all love Siakam, and as much as he has improved over the past couple of seasons, and as much as we’ve been looking forward to these playoffs as his big breakout, the equation here is unfortunately simple. Most would agree that Siakam’s defensive ability and utility for the Raptors is greater than Tatum’s role on that end for the Celtics. But also...

1. Jayson Tatum

Tatum is ultimately the more polished offensive player right now. What’s more, he has shown the ability to unlock whatever skills he needs to attack what the defense gives him. Boston will need that particular ability against the best defense in the Bubble. So yes, while it may be sacrilege to rank Tatum ahead of Siakam — on this very site no less! — it also feels like he’ll be a smidge harder to contain than the Raptors’ own do-it-all centrepiece.

(Or maybe I’m trying for some complicated reverse jinx. Who’s to say?)