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Raptors prepare for old foes, the Celtics: Preview, start time, and more

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After dropping a few winnable games, the Raptors hope to get back on track as the Celtics visit Tampa tonight.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re living in a new age. The Raptors’ recent successes are fading into a distant memory, while this season, just about everything that could have gone wrong, has gone wrong. Both the offense and the rotation in general are completely out of whack, and a few key players haven’t played up to their preseason expectations. It feels like the Raptors have veered off a familiar path onto an unpaved road.

Kyle Lowry’s tenure in Toronto is potentially approaching its end, and thus far, it seems like coach Nick Nurse is doing all he can to prevent a smooth transition at the point guard position. Despite looking like a viable solution to many of the Raptors’ offensive problems, Malachi Flynn has yet to play real, regular season minutes. Matt Thomas still hasn’t been given a consistent spot in the rotation either after displaying improved playmaking chops and defensive tenacity. DeAndre’ Bembry, who many predicted would become a fan favourite, has also yet to play any real minutes.

Instead, we’ve been subjected to the likes of Stanley Johnson and Terence Davis, neither of whom should be playing nearly as much as they have been. To be fair, Johnson has been solid defensively, but Davis has been a trainwreck on both ends of the floor. I’m struggling to understand why Nurse has been so hesitant to change up what clearly isn’t working.

Tonight, the Celtics travel to Tampa to play the Raptors on the second night of a back-to-back. Just a few months ago these two teams were conference rivals, battling it out for superiority near the top of the standings. Now, the Raptors sit at 13th with a 1-4 record, while Boston is off to a relatively slow 4-3 start. The Celtics have struggled in the early going, though they’ve been bolstered by the dazzling play of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

This should be an interesting game — an early gauge on how these teams stack up. Though, if the Raptors couldn’t beat the Celtics last year, I have my doubts they’d see any more success this time around. Here are the details for tonight’s game:

Where to Watch

Sportsnet, 7:30 PM ET

Lineups

Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes

Boston — Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis

Injuries

Toronto — Patrick McCaw (out - knee)

Boston — Kemba Walker (out – knee), Romeo Langford (out - wrist), Javonte Green (out – medical protocols)

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The Great Debate

For years, Raptors and Celtics fans have squabbled over whose young core is better: OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, or Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. I understand the season just started, but right now, it’s not even a discussion: the Celtics’ young guys are better. Delusional Raptors fans may still disagree, but their position is getting more and more difficult to defend. OG and Pascal are both incredible defenders, but their offensive limitations have been painfully apparent this season.

Despite mentioning a desire to contribute more meaningfully on the offensive end, OG has been tentative in driving with the ball, while his long-distance shot has fallen off a cliff. Up until the end of the preseason, OG’s shot attempts from beyond the arc instilled feelings of comfort. Now, even OG himself looks completely hesitant while taking shots from the perimeter.

Siakam has long been my favourite Raptor, but as tough as it is to admit, I’m starting to believe he’s reached his ceiling. He hasn’t been “himself” for over a calendar year, and I’m getting the aching suspicion that his stellar play at the beginning of last season was simply an outlier. During that stretch of brilliance, he could get to the rim with ease, using his quickness and contorting his body such that he could slither by defenders and finish at the rim. Ever since teams have started packing the paint and anticipating his moves and drives before they happen, his once-potent offense has been completely quelled. Aside from one beautiful off-foot Euro step last game, Pascal hasn’t shown an ounce of creativity with the ball that’s required to take one’s game to the next level.

Settle the Rotation

As previously mentioned, this year’s rotations have been completely bizarre. For reasons unknown, Nurse has just not been playing Flynn, Thomas, and Bembry much. The Raptors’ second unit is in desperate need of a talented playmaker, while those three potentially helpful options have thus far remained glued to the bench.

Norman Powell should be providing a nice spark of energy off the bench, but his decision-making, shooting, and finishing have all been wildly inconsistent to start the season. He needs to be paired with a proper playmaker to have continued, reliable success. Conversely, if his shot’s not falling, Nurse needs to know when to pull the plug and try something else.

If Stanley Johnson is going to continue playing, Matt Thomas should be on the floor alongside him, running around the perimeter looking for his shot. Ideally, Lowry should remain on the floor for all of Johnson’s minutes as well. There have been multiple instances of Lowry trusting Johnson to make the right play, and we’ve seen steady improvement in that regard over the course of the young season.

Lastly, Thomas and Flynn showed flashes of undeniable chemistry in the preseason, which makes perfect sense. Flynn is adept at finding shooters off screens — Thomas’ bread and butter. For a team struggling to generate offense, why this hasn’t been tried in the regular season yet, we may never know.

Temper Expectations

I hate to say it, but this iteration of the Raptors may end up being far worse than fans initially anticipated. Marc Gasol is sorely missed on both ends of the floor. The team has been suffering from a lack of secondary playmaking alongside Lowry, which Gasol consistently provided. No, he wasn’t perfect — he had no paint presence and was sometimes afraid to let it fly from deep — but his shortcomings were far outweighed by his basketball IQ. Marc consistently opened passing lanes and created for his teammates in a way that no longer exists within the Raptors’ offense.

Serge Ibaka turned out to be irreplaceable as well. This year’s second unit has struggled to create offense, and Serge was never afraid to just shoot. Over the past few years, when the team needed a bucket, it was often Serge who showed up at just the right time. Now, as we’ve seen when the Raptors’ bench struggles, there is no hero to reinvigorate them. Chris Boucher may be able to fill in the role of relentless gunner, but that needs to be balanced with an otherwise calculated attack. Currently, the bench has nobody to rely on to keep the offense running smoothly.

It’s still early, so of course there’s a chance the Raptors figure it out. The pieces are there to fix these issues, but it’s up to Nurse to enact change, and right now all potential solutions are stuck on the bench. If Nurse doesn’t start tinkering with lineups sooner rather than later, the season could derail quickly in a way the Raptors’ fan base hasn’t seen in close to a decade.