After years of anticipation and multiple unforeseen delays, the Raptors-Celtics series that fans have dreamt of is finally coming to fruition. Before we look into this afternoon’s Game 1, however, it remains vital to remember that police brutality and racial injustice still run rampant across North America. If you haven’t already (or if you feel inclined to do so again), please consider supporting Jacob Blake’s family by donating to his mother’s fundraiser, as well as reaching out to your local government official to push for change in police accountability and defunding.
Okay, let’s talk about basketball. Both the Celtics and Raptors swept their first round series with confidence against injury-ridden teams. Now, the challenge really begins. For some context, both teams are known to be defensive powerhouses — Toronto finished second in defensive rating this season, while Boston finished fourth. On the offensive end however, the Celtics were the league’s fourth most efficient team, while the Raptors were just 14th.
While Toronto does tend to struggle in the half-court, the team’s middling offensive ranking may also be due in part to the countless injuries that have plagued the team all season long, up until recently. Kyle Lowry suffered an ankle injury in the last game against the Brooklyn Nets, though he recently participated in a team practice, which hopefully bodes well for his odds of playing. And, even if Lowry isn’t totally, physically healthy upon his return, his basketball IQ, hustle and facilitation shouldn’t suffer. On the Celtics’ side, Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury and left the bubble to seek treatment. The chances he returns mid-series are quite low.
Now that we’ve gotten some context out of the way, here are the game details:
Where to Watch:
TSN, 1:00 PM EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Boston – Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis
Toronto – Patrick McCaw (knee – out), Oshae Brissett (knee – out), Kyle Lowry (ankle – probable)
Boston – Javonte Green (knee – out), Gordon Hayward (ankle – out), Tremont Waters (knee – out)
No matter how things shake out in this initial meetup, I wouldn’t expect the same game plan to extend into Game 2. Both Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens embrace experimentation, and these two teams are so switchable that initial, primary matchups are unlikely to remain the same as the series progresses.
For example, Pascal Siakam has guarded Jaylen Brown in the past, though I imagine we’ll see some Siakam defense on both Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart as well. The same goes for OG Anunoby, who’s both strong enough to guard Robert “Time Lord” Williams, and nimble enough to guard the deft Tatum. As well, I can imagine Kyle Lowry’s duties on the defensive end to extend anywhere from Kemba Walker, to Marcus Smart, to Jayson Tatum depending on the situation.
Battle of the All-Stars
When it comes to the Siakam versus Tatum comparisons, this series may be as close as we can get to a definitive answer. The NBA media, and by extension, casual fans, will focus on the outcome of this specific matchup, creating storylines that will likely sustain it for the foreseeable future. While these players may not even necessarily guard each other all that much this series, the media conversation will certainly be geared towards comparing the performances of each player.
Similarly, Lowry versus Walker will likely be discussed heavily during this series, as both players seek dominance as the Eastern Conference’s best point guard. While I expect VanVleet to guard Walker most of the time (and vice versa), Lowry’s performance this series will undoubtedly be compared to Kemba’s production. After years of toiling away on a not-so-good Charlotte Hornets squad, I expect Walker to come out firing, proving he can help lead a good team to a successful post-season run. Though Lowry has nothing to prove after winning a title last year, I expect the tenacious guard will still look to shut doubters up as well — “No Kawhi? No problem.”
Boston is the league’s eighth best team in terms of protecting the ball (13.2 turnovers per game), so the Raptors have their work cut out for them. Luckily, the Raptors are in possession of particularly smart, quick, and pesky defenders such as Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby who are adept at causing turnovers (second best in the league, 8.8 steals per game). In this series especially, anticipating the opponent’s spots and swarming before the offensive player has a chance to put the ball on the floor will be crucial.
If the Raptors can make life difficult for the Celtics’ isolation scorers while remaining prepared to jump out at perimeter shooters off kick-outs, Toronto should be in good shape. Despite missing Hayward, Boston still has plenty of capable three-point threats who can make the Raptors pay; luckily, Siakam is one of the league’s best three-point defenders, with his quick strides and wingspan often covering more ground than shooters believe is possible. Although these teams enter this series with much different narratives — one with a title to defend, one trying to prove itself — it’s safe to say both enter Game 1 with significant chips on their shoulder. And both squads are out to prove they are the Milwaukee Bucks’ biggest challengers for the East title.