6:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Raptors -2, Over/Under: 216.5
With two weeks of action in the books, the NBA Playoffs rage on into the Second Round stage as the Third-Seeded Boston Celtics face off against the Second-Seeded Toronto Raptors in Game One of the Eastern Semifinals from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. For the fourth consecutive Postseason, the Celtics (48-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference) have successfully advanced to the Second Round, though they hope that this particular run lasts longer than last year’s in which they were eliminated courtesy of the Milwaukee Bucks in a Gentleman’s Sweep. That team suffered from some serious chemistry issues, particularly in regards to former Point Guard, Kyrie Irving, but this current side appears to be as harmonious as possible, with a number of their younger players developing right on schedule. Following the four-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, it was clear that Boston benefitted greatly from the lengthy respite and acquainted themselves quite nicely within the Bubble, going 5-3 in the Seeding Games, and sweeping the Philadelphia 76ers in the First Round of the Playoffs. Winners of nine of their last eleven contests, Brad Stevens charges look primed to take on the challenge of facing the defending champions. But let’s take a moment to look back on how they got here.
In the wake of Irving’s departure in Free Agency, the Celtics in turn signed another All-Star Point Guard, Kemba Walker (20.4 PTS, 42.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 20.0 PER), which for all intents and purposes has been a far better fit than that of his more heralded predecessor. The 30-Year Old has been a class act in the locker room, and quite frankly has been an excellent fit within Stevens’ system, and now appears to have finally returned to full health following a knee injury suffered just before the league-wide shutdown. There were some questions as to how he would perform in the Playoffs due to a relative lack of experience at that stage given his previous tenure in Charlotte, but Walker has quelled any such concerns with his showing against the Sixers in the First Round; the four-time All-Star averaged 24.3 Points on 49.3% shooting from the field, along with 4.3 Rebounds, 3.8 Assists, and 1.3 Steals. Sure, he struggled from beyond the arc, netting only 29.6% of his attempts, but this guy knocked down 38.1% of his looks in the Regular Season, so that should turn around for the better at some point. However, the greatest proponent of Boston’s success this season has been that aforementioned development of their young stars, with Jayson Tatum (23.4 PTS, 45.0% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.4 PER) chief among them. Still only 22-Years Old, the Swingman has continued to develop his considerable offensive skillset, while benefitting greatly from Stevens’ position-less basketball approach. He has logged career-highs in a slew of categories, including Points (23.4), Rebounds (7.0), Assists (3.0), and Steals (1.4), while really taking his game to another level following the All-Star Break in which he has posted averages of 26.6 Points on an efficient 47.1% shooting from the field, including 46.0% from downtown, along with 7.1 Rebounds and 3.4 Assists per Game. This progression continued against Philadelphia, whom Tatum averaged 27.0 Points on 48.7% shooting from the field, including a blistering 45.2% from downtown, 9.8 Rebounds, 2.5 Assists, and 2.3 Blocks in the sweep. After setting the tone early with Thirty-Three and Thirty-Two Points in the first two games of the series, and in the final chapter, a 110-106 victory last Sunday, he totaled Twenty-Seven Points on 10-of-18 shooting (55.6%) along with a Playoff career-high Fifteen Rebounds.
With the Sixers out of the way, Boston’s focus will now be on dethroning the reigning champions, which figures to be a rather arduous task given their form this season, particularly since the Restart. With that said, there should be a good degree of optimism due to their performance against them in the Regular Season in which they won three out of four meetings. Quite frankly, the games weren’t that close; the Celtics outscored the Raptors 112.3-105.3, despite shooting just 44.2% shooting from the field, including 33.3% from beyond the arc, but really made the difference with their pressure on the defensive end of court, turning them over on average 19.8 times, which when coupled with a Plus-3.5 advantage in Offensive Rebounds, has helped lead to a multitude of second-chance opportunities, or in other words 11.0 more Field Goal Attempts per encounter. When they last met, a one-sided 122-100 drubbing back on August 7th, Stevens’ troops were in complete control of an affair that wasn’t even as close as that final score would indicate; Boston led 91-57 after Three Quarters before resting their starters in the final stanza. Seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Jaylen Brown (20.3 PTS, 48.1% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.9 PER) and the aforementioned Tatum with Twenty and Eighteen Points respectively, with the Bench accounting for Forty-Seven Points. However, it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to count upon the services of Gordon Hayward (17.5 PTS, 50.0% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 4.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 18.1 PER) at any point in this series, with the veteran Wing suffering a Grade 3 Sprain to his Right Ankle in Game Two of the series with Philadelphia. Given his recent injury history, you can imagine that the Training Staff will be as cautious as possible with the 30-Year Old, who performed well after missing all but one game of the 2018-2019 campaign following a gruesome foot injury. Initially it was reported that Hayward would miss as many as four weeks following this latest ailment, and it’s not a stretch to say that his team will certainly miss him in this matchup with Toronto; in four meetings this term, the former All-Star averaged 12.3 Points, 7.0 Rebounds, and 3.3 Assists.
Meanwhile, from start to finish there hasn’t been a more surprising team in the NBA in 2019-2020 than the Raptors (53-19, 2nd in Eastern Conference), which isn’t something that is typically associated with a defending champion. Then again, in what has been far from a typical season in general, why should a title defense be any different? Not long after dethroning the Golden State Warriors and hoisting the first Larry O’Brien Trophy in the short history of the franchise, Toronto parted ways with NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, who despite one excellent season with the franchise was always destined to leave via Free Agency. However, the club also lost another key component of that playoff run, Danny Green, leaving the Rotation without considerable shooting, defense, and experience. With that said, nobody foresaw this group doing what they’ve done this year, earning a .736 Win Percentage, which is the highest in franchise history. Think about that for a moment, folks; with the departures of Leonard and Green, they said goodbye to a combined 36.9 Points, 11.3 Rebounds, 4.9 Assists, and 2.7 Steals per Game, and they STILL managed to have a higher Win Percentage, and they STILL managed to win the Atlantic Division, and they STILL managed to earn the No. Two Seed in the Eastern Conference, and they STILL advanced to the Eastern Semifinals for fifth consecutive Postseason. The key is that even with a star like Leonard leading the charge last year, this team has still retained it’s identity as a group that is greater than the sum of it’s parts, which is the primary reason as to why Nick Nurse earned Coach of the Year honors earlier in the week.
While it may be easy to dismiss the Raptors as true contenders due to their residence north of the border, the signs have been visibly apparent since the turn of the new year that this group remained a legitimate threat at the top of the Eastern Conference. Toronto was 25-14 on January 12th before embarking on a franchise-best fifteen-game winning streak that vaulted them up the Standings. Furthermore, they had won six out of nine after the All-Star Break before the Covid-19 shutdown, and once the Association got back to business in Orlando, so did the champs, who were easily one of the most impressive teams within the Bubble; Nurse’s charges went 7-1 during the Seeding Games, besting their opponents by an average margin of 4.5 Points per Game on 45.2% shooting from the field, including 36.8% from beyond the arc, with their tenacious defense relegating the opposition to 42.0% shooting overall and 33.4% from downtown, while outrebounding them by 2.5 Boards, and forcing 16.4 Turnovers. Veteran stalwarts such as Kyle Lowry (19.4 PTS, 41.6% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 7.5 AST, 1.4 STL, 17.7 PER), Serge Ibaka (15.4 PTS, 51.2% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 BLK, 17.3 PER), and Marc Gasol (7.5 PTS, 42.7% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 11.8 PER) continue to play vital roles within the Rotation, while younger talents such as Pascal Siakam (22.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.9 BLK, 17.9 PER), Fred VanVleet (17.6 PTS, 41.3% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.9 STL, 16.3 PER), Norman Powell (16.0 PTS, 49.5% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 16.8 PER), and OG Anunoby (10.6 PTS, 50.5% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 53 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.4 STL, 13.2 PER), have absolutely thrived with their roles having been expanded. As a result, this is one of the deepest teams in the league, and that depth and versatility has allowed Nurse to incorporate a wealth of unique defensive stratagems, with few units proving more adept at changing defenses from possession to possession. This was very evident in their dismantling of the undermanned Brooklyn Nets in their Frist Round Series in which the Raptors outscored them by a whopping margin of 20.5 Points per Game, relegating them to a dismal 39.7% shooting from the field, including 33.7% from downtown.
And with that said, it should be absolutely interesting to see how these guys matchup with the Celtics, who when you look back have been the only team to defeat them since March 1st. Granted, the four-month hiatus had a lot to do with that, but the fact remains that as impressive as they’ve been since the Restart, the only team to beat Toronto has been Boston, who as we touched upon earlier, did so rather handedly. That aforementioned 22-Point Loss was never close, and we’d like to think that Nurse (or someone on his Staff) ultimately decided to burn the film of it ever taking place, for it was just one of those performances that everyone would prefer to forget. As they have throughout their three previous meetings with the Celtics, the Raptors struggled to consistently execute their halfcourt offense due to the relentless switching that their opponent did defensively, which resulted in 42.7% shooting from the field, including a dreadful 10-of-38 from the perimeter (26.3%), and nearly as many Turnovers (17) as Assists (20). That last ratio has been the decisive factor in this matchup, for this has really been their biggest weakness all season; in 2019-2020, Toronto has committed an average of 14.8 Turnovers (17th Overall) in comparison to dishing out a respectable 25.2 Assists (11th Overall), but against Boston those figures have become much closer, with 19.8 Turnovers opposed to just 21.3 Assists. In fact, that particular statistic is their worst against any team this year that they’ve encountered on more than one occasion. Taking care of the basketball is absolutely paramount for them to have success offensively in this series, and with that in mind, keep your eyes on the aforementioned Lowry; a sprained ankle has limited the 34-Year Old in practice with his status for Game One officially Day-to-Day. The veteran Point Guard was the team’s leader in Assists (7.5) and Turnovers (3.1), though has long been mired by a reputation in the Playoffs for poor play.