There’s something about this Raptors team that conjures up feelings akin to the 2013-2014 surprise season in which a hodge-podge of role players helped Toronto secure its first playoff berth in almost five seasons. That’s not to say the team is devoid of talent, leadership or the merits to make a playoff run — only that their actual play very well may exceed nearly every “guesstimate” from analysts.
Just 6-5 through 11 games, Toronto began the year slow, won five straight, and have since dropped two — including a tough last second loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the couple losses, beating out a scrappy Washington Wizards and New York Knicks team, while coming within seconds of extending that win streak to six versus an equally scrappy Cavs team (combined records of those three: 21-11) is a great sign.
Boston is in a similar position, though they haven’t been as cohesive to start this season, and things won’t get easier after Jaylen Brown was announced to be out for at least two weeks by head coach Ime Udoka.
Without a true point guard (Dennis Schroder hardly counts as a starter in this league and has since been benched sporadically, starting just four games) the Celtics look lost offensively most of the time. Relying heavily on their twin-iso superstars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum yet again — contributing nearly 49 points per game, roughly 45 percent of the C’s total offensive output — all it takes is a tough shooting night from either to dampen Boston’s chances of winning a ball game.
However, they too have shown a spark of veteran spirit, with a dominant defensive showing against the up-start, Lowry-led Miami Heat — grabbing a 95-78 victory just last week. Toronto and Boston obviously have one of the league’s most passionate rivalries right now, and while Kyle Lowry isn’t here to fire up his brothers, Al Horford and Marcus Smart’s antics are enough to get any true competitor in a Raptors uniform ready to win the game. This will be a watershed game for the team’s young and gamely rotation.
Where to Watch:
Sportsnet, 7:30 p.m. EST
Toronto — Fred Van Vleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
Boston — Dennis Schroder, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, Al Horford
Toronto — Khem Birch (Doubtful — knee), Isaac Bonga (Out — G-League), Yuta Watanabe (Out — Calf Strain), David Johnson (Out — Two-Way)
Boston — Jaylen Brown (Out — Knee)
With Brown out for multiple games, Toronto will likely have to pay extra attention to two areas they’ve excelled in defensively so far this season: containing point penetration, and limiting offensive rebounds. With Dennis Schroder shooting an atrocious 30 percent from deep, the Celtics will look to get him easy looks with quick cuts and a lot of motion. With Horford back into his comfort zone as a de facto pivot/point-centre at the top of the key, the timeless centre is having a typical year passing the ball, as Udoka has reutilized his half-court vision to the tune of 3.3 assists per game.
Under the hoop, Robert Williams has been a monster and I expect Toronto to throw a lot of bulk into the paint (read: lots of Achiuwa minutes) to counter his size and rebounding ability. Williams is one of the best offensive rebounders in the game, and his ability to finish at the rim thanks to his wide-shouldered strength is second to none (he’s shooting 72.2 percent from the field this year!). With Schroder looking to get to the hoop, and Robert Williams ready to clean up any misses, Toronto has to cook up a tight scheme to contain the peripheral offensive threats next to Jayson Tatum if they want to win this game.
Not too Spicy
Easing Pascal Siakam back into an offensive rhythm is paramount, not only for the superstar’s confidence moving forward, but for the young players who’ve become closely watched role players on the team. Scottie Barnes need not worry about his playing time, his touches, nor his future — obviously. However, Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe and Khem Birch have to turn things up and show Nurse why they belong on the floor when all three return to full health.
Playing just 25 total minutes in his first action, Siakam looked one part crafty and three parts rusty against the Nets. Of course, a bit of hesitance and a few ill-advised shots are to be expected, in addition to the defense of Kevin Durant. However I am of the opinion that Pascal would benefit most by captaining a group of bench players for a few games — perhaps not starting at all. Alas it is moot: the call has been made by Nurse, and Siakam will be on the floor (he is the $30 million man after all) at tip-off. Watching the chemistry between he, Fred and Anunoby re-establish itself will be a beautiful thing to watch again.
Much Ado About Gary
Much has been written this week about Gary Trent Jr.’s impeccable defensive ability this season, joining Van Vleet as the top two players in the league in deflections per game. This position is nothing new for FVV, as he’d led the league each of the past two seasons in this category. However, to have both guards leading the league in deflections just goes to show what the player development crew on the Raptors is capable of.
Trent Jr. has already matched his career high in steals (five) three times in 11 games this season — a far cry from what we saw last year when fans were questioning the validity of his $18 million per year contract. Also, Gary’s averaging three more points per game on the road (17.3) than at home (14.0) this season. Go get ‘em GT.