These two teams have the longest playoff streaks in the league, with Boston at seven years and Toronto at six. In that span of time, despite a lot of desire from each fanbase and thanks to a confluence of factors, they haven’t crossed paths.
Well, wait no longer. And while there won’t be anyone in the seats for the Eastern Conference semi-final starting tomorrow night, there’s still plenty of atmosphere and excitement around a Raptors-Celtics series. Odds-makers are expecting a close series and everything on paper bears that out.
Toronto finished five games ahead of Boston, but the Celtics have had the Raptors’ number in the regular season — a 3-1 record, including Toronto’s only loss in the bubble. That 122-100 Boston win had through lines that can’t be ignored, and created some questions to be answered by Nick Nurse and the Raptors.
At its simplest, this is a matchup of Bucks challengers. Heading into the NBA’s return, one of the trending topics was whether anyone could challenge Milwaukee in the East. Early favour went to Boston and their ability to score at multiple positions while defending at a high level. Along with the Clippers, the Celtics are the only team that has a top five rating on both offense and defense.
Then, as the Raptors started winning games against all comers, the pendulum swung their way. Toronto has already shown that their schemes can beat Milwaukee (four straight times, no less) and can make that series a dogfight, and the Raptors’ best players have executed at a high level in the bubble.
First, they have a severe challenge on their hands though. The Celtics are an ascendant team in the Eastern Conference. Jaylen Brown continues to improve after the hiatus, Jayson Tatum has been consistently good after a superstar stretch in the spring, and Brad Stevens’ supporting cast has solidified into a high-level playoff rotation. Toronto has their work cut out for them if they’re going to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight year.
Here are three storylines I’m watching for as the series gets underway.
Boston’s open shooters
It’s no secret that Toronto’s hyperactive defense has a necessary cost. The Raptors give up more open threes than anyone else in the East, allowing their opponents to shoot 46.0 three-pointers per game. They’re strategic, though, often willing to give those shots to the worst shooter on the floor.
With Gordon Hayward out for the series, the natural fit for this open shot amongst Boston’s starters is Marcus Smart. The Raptors are going to shade defense towards the Celtics’ three creators: Brown and Tatum off the dribble, and Kemba Walker — one of the deadliest high pick and roll shooters in the NBA.
This is going to leave Smart open in Boston’s most used lineups. When the Celtics hit the bench, Semi Ojeleye is also a likely candidate. While these two don’t carry the three-point percentage of Hayward at 38.3%, they’re not incapable. In 2019-20, Smart is no longer a laughable outside shooter, and his willingness to put up open shots this season — 34.7% on 6.6 attempts — makes him a threat to the Raptors.
Then, there’s Daniel Theis. The Boston big man made two of his four three-point looks in the win on August 7, on his way to an 11-point, 11-rebound performance.
Theis is more than just a lead-legged shooting big man, though, as he’s shown the ability to put the ball on the floor for easy baskets when a lane is available to him. Toronto will have to be mindful of keeping a body on Theis, and their defense of the Walker-Theis pick and roll will have to be sound throughout the series.
Yes, the Raptors will have to be diligent with giving up open shots to the Celtics’ role players. There’s going to be some give and take in this series, though, and the ability for Smart, Ojeleye, and Theis to shoot or create without a defender in front of them will be a swing factor for the Celtics in close games.
Siakam, guarded by Brown
In Game 4 against the Nets, Pascal Siakam showed us all the right things when it comes to his offensive game. His decisiveness was on point, as he took the ball aggressively to the basket at any opportunity.
When guarded by smaller players, Siakam has had no trouble facing up, creating space, and shooting over the defense to get a good look. This should be the case against Jaylen Brown, his primary defender in every matchup against the Celtics this season — and yet, he’s struggled.
Buried a bit by an 11-point, 2-rebound performance on August 7, Siakam has shot just 43.2% against Boston this season and has marked an average -14 when on the floor.
What’s been the problem? It hasn’t been a lack of good looks. Rather, Siakam has worked hard to get to his spots, but has rushed his shots a bit and missed some high-percentage takes as a result.
Here, in an isolation post-up against Brown, he settles for a fading one-footed jumper.
Again, a great look for Siakam in the paint, but Brown contests well and forces a miss.
A bright side post: here, Siakam drives with authority and finishes.
In my Raptors-Nets preview, I looked at the numbers behind Siakam’s struggles in the bubble. His drop-off hasn’t been severe, but a less efficient finishing ability has put him behind the eight ball against good defenses. While the Nets didn’t have the personnel to put up much of a fight, it was encouraging to see Siakam get back on track throughout the four-game sweep. Now, it’ll be pivotal for him to apply that and use it to score effectively against a much tougher Celtics defense.
Sorting out rotations
The biggest question surrounding the Raptors-Celtics series is the status of Kyle Lowry. We know that Hayward will be out for the whole series, but Nick Nurse and the Raptors’ staff have been quiet about the severity of Lowry’s left ankle sprain and how it will affect his early series status. A report will come late today or early tomorrow per NBA rules, but the small leaks have been encouraging — knowing Lowry too, there will be an attempt to play no matter what the injury.
If we’re to assume that Lowry plays at some percentage of himself, then the questions turn to the end of the Raptors’ rotation. Terence Davis has solidified himself as the eighth man after Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell, as many expected he would heading into the bubble. Matt Thomas has provided a curveball look in the ninth spot, with his shooting ability allowing Nick Nurse to run some “JJ Redick light” offensive sets that feature Thomas curling off screens on the wings or at the top of the key.
If you include Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson getting some spot minutes based on performance, the only concern with the Raptors’ second unit is whether they can defend at a high enough level. Neither Davis and Thomas have been 100% trustworthy on that end of the floor, and Boston has solidified their rotation into a smart, energetic ten. Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Enes Kanter, Robert Williams, and the aforementioned Ojeleye have all performed well in the bubble. Williams in particular has been very good against the Raptors, and his athleticism would be a tough handle if Nurse were to stray from having Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka on the floor at all times.
I expect that if the going gets tough, Nurse will revert back to his early season mindset. Sure, by tightening his rotation to seven players, he’ll be putting more pressure on a possibly hobbled Lowry — but with all seven Raptors playing at a high level heading into this series, you remove much of the capacity for chaos. I mean, Ibaka and Powell combined for 56 points off the bench in Toronto’s last game. That is sign enough that they’re at full tilt heading into the second round.
Raptors-Celtics has been highly anticipated for a long time, and I have little doubt it’ll live up to or exceed those expectations.
The second round of the NBA playoffs looks to be stacked with evenly-matched series, but this is one that I’m confident will go the distance. There are just too many variables, the coaches are too good at adjusting, and the teams are too familiar.
Still, my name is on a red and black masthead, and I’m confident in the Raptors top seven players and their ability to pull on championship experience. Give me Toronto.
Prediction: Raptors in 7