The first series of the second round starts at the bottom half of the East bracket, where the 2-seeded Raptors and 3-seeded Celtics will clash after sweeps of overmatched and depleted first round opponents. Toronto ran over half of the Nets, who quickly found that their impressive bubble work ethic wasn’t going to be enough in the playoffs. Boston pulled away from a Sixers team without Ben Simmons.
These two played four times during the regular season, and the Celtics won three of those match-ups. Two of their wins – and Toronto’s sole win in the series – came by 16 or more points. These are both great basketball teams that should play a close series, but they’ve only played one close game all season. Back in October, the Celtics won the fourth by 12 to take home a six-point victory.
Let’s run through the basics –
Game 1 – August 30 (Today) @ 1:00 p.m. Eastern
No other game times are determined, but there will be a game every other day until the series is decided.
Game 2 – Tuesday
Game 3 – Thursday
Game 4 – Saturday
Game 5 – Monday, September 7
Game 6 – Wednesday, September 9
Game 7 – Friday, September 11
Gordon Hayward (ankle) will likely miss the series. It would be a shock to see him back before the next round – though it’s not impossible if this one goes the distance.
Two barely used rookies, Javonte Green and Tremont Waters, are out with knee injuries. It looks like Waters is on a day-to-day basis, but Green figures to be unavailable for at least this series if not slightly longer.
Kyle Lowry (ankle) is now probable for today’s game. The few days of delay likely helped his availability in a major way.
Patrick McCaw and Oshae Brissett are both outside of the bubble for knee treatment. There’s no timetable for either player. Brissett played just 135 minutes this season, and McCaw played 37 fairly unimpressive games.
October 25 – Celtics 112, Raptors 106
December 25 – Celtics 118, Raptors 102
December 28 – Raptors 113, Celtics 97
August 7 – Celtics 122, Raptors 100
Given the heavy injury issues each team has dealt with this year and the overall oddness of the season, it’s hard to tell if these games mean much of anything. The Sixers beat the Celtics 3-1 during the regular season, for example, though Simmons being out was an obvious difference there.
My Original Predictions for this Series
What did I predict back in my full playoff preview (http://statpadders.com/?p=1277)?
Raptors in 7
I gave both the Nets and Sixers a win that they didn’t end up getting in the first round, but my picks for the bottom half of the East are looking good so far.
Quick Team Summaries
The Celtics swapped out Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker, and they rode a newly positive culture to a very good season. Boston was great on both sides of the ball, and they boast one of the deepest group of wings in the league with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward (out), and Marcus Smart playing alongside Walker. They lacked a true superstar for much of the season – Tatum was only playing at that level for about a month shortly before the break – but there’s a lot of talent here. Daniel Theis plays smart and effective basketball in the middle and he and the flawed but very productive Enes Kanter have made up for the off-season loss of Al Horford.
Boston hit the ground running during the seeding games, ranking sixth in both scoring efficiency and defensive rating and second to the Suns in net rating. They outscored opponents by more than 7 points per game despite their 5-3 record. Boston entered the playoffs playing well, and they stayed hot during their first round series. The loss of Hayward – and the fact that Boston really only dominated one of their four games against the Sixers – provide some reasons for worry, but the Celtics could very well win this series and more.
Tatum played the role of a star during that opening round, and Walker and Brown were huge in supporting scoring roles. All three will need to continue to play at that level if Boston plans to advance without Hayward.
The Raptors are an elite defensive team with an up-and-down offense. During the seeding games, the defense was incredible and the offense trended towards being down. Toronto has a surprisingly deep roster led by Coach of the Year Nick Nurse, and they have plenty of weapons. They’re just not great offensively, and they were 12th in scoring efficiency before the break. The defense will keep them in games, but the offense will need to be slightly better than it was in the seeding games (18th out of 22 in bubble points per game) to give this team a chance to repeat as champions. The first round offered some positive signs offensively, but it wasn’t perfect. It also means very little because of the match-up. The Celtics aren’t the Nets, and the Raptors will need to prove they can score enough to win. They weren’t able to do it when they met up with Boston a few weeks ago.
With that said, the key is always going to be the defense. Pretty much everyone in Toronto can play it well, and they’re finally healthy after a long season of injuries. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet lead the show. They’ll need to hit their shots, but the production of Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby, Norm Powell, and more will be just as important. The Raptors bench scored 100 points in Game 4 against the Nets. That’ll solve your offensive problems.
Lowry v. Walker and Tatum/Brown v. Siakam/VanVleet are going to be massive battles that could end up determining the series if they clearly flip in one way. But stars are always key in the playoffs. The best players are always important. Who else could play a big role?
- Marc Gasol
Gasol, 35, has seen his numbers take a hit this season. He’s slower. He’s struggled with injuries. He’s also still a major piece of this team’s success. The Raptors were 5.9 points better per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court, and the Celtics – with Theis and Kanter – might offer a favorable match-up. Those two aren’t going to outrun Gasol with frequency, and the Celtics don’t figure to go small unless it becomes a necessity. There should be plenty of time for Gasol to make his mark in this series, and his versatility on both sides of the court could loom large in a series that looks to be controlled by the guards and wings. One thing to watch – his deep shooting. Gasol was just 3-11 from deep against the Nets, but he will likely have the opportunity to shoot in this series. The Celtics like to drop their big man towards the rim on screens, which will leave space beyond the arc for the screener. Can Gasol take advantage?
2. Daniel Theis
Theis is basically made to be an X-Factor. He knows what he needs to do on both sides of the court, but he’s also in a role that could go from big to small in a hurry. Gasol isn’t mobile, but he can theoretically spread the floor. That goes against Boston’s defensive system with Theis on the floor. What happens if Gasol is feeling it from beyond the arc? Can he adjust? Can the team adjust? On the other side, Theis makes plays around the margins to help the stars get the offense rolling. Against a tough Raptors defense, those small things could be all the more crucial.
3. Marcus Smart
Smart is one of the better defenders in the league, and he brings a lot of energy and leadership for the Celtics. He’s now their clear fourth-best player with Hayward out. Tatum, Brown, and Walker have and will need to pick up a lot of the offensive losses that Hayward’s injury brings, but Smart can bring some extra playmaking. His defense will also be crucial this series. Lowry and VanVleet’s ability to create from beyond the arc for themselves and others is the driving force for Toronto. If Smart can help to put a severe dent in their output, things will swing Boston’s way.
- Being the best player
Overall, the statistical profiles of Tatum and Siakam aren’t all that different, though Tatum has clearly had a higher peak. Siakam struggled with his efficiency but played a good overall series against the Nets while Tatum rolled against the Sixers when he wasn’t in foul trouble. You would have to take Tatum right now on current form, but Siakam could really shift the dynamics of this series if he claims the mantle of top dog.
Similarly, the battle between the next four best players – Lowry (arguably more important than Siakam at times), VanVleet, Walker, and Brown – will be significant. Who’s the best of that group? Can they challenge the top duo? Will anyone struggle? The answers to those questions will likely determine the series, and the Raptors have to be feeling good about their clear experience edge there.
- Coaching decisions
The East is going to give us some great coaching match-ups the rest of the way. Here we have Nick Nurse, the Coach of the Year going up against Brad Stevens, one of the most hyped-up coaches in recent memory. It’s hard to argue against the results for either. There are lots of match-ups for both to use in this series. How will Stevens utilize Smart defensively? How will he run his big men rotations? Who does he trust when one of his starters gets in foul trouble? How will Nurse employ Gasol and OG Anunoby? Will he trust Terence Davis and Chris Boucher now that the games really count? What does he do if the offense struggles early? The players will win or lose the series, but the coaches will have an impact.
The Walker-Smart-Tatum-Brown grouping might edge out the Siakam-Lowry-VanVleet-Anunoby group in talent, but don’t count out the Raptors at the top. Either way, the players not included in those two lists of four will be crucial to the outcome of this series. The Raptors should have the edge there, at least in number. Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell, and Terence Davis will be going up against Theis, Enes Kanter, and Brad Wanamaker. Guys like Matt Thomas, Boucher, and Grant Williams could have an important game at one point or another. If the Celtics don’t get a strong effort from the depth they have, they will need their stars to be at their best. Toronto will have an advantage otherwise.
This should be a great series. The Celtics, at the top, might have a little more talent. The Raptors have more depth, and they clearly have an advantage in the experience department. Toronto has a defensive edge that Boston should make up for offensively. Tatum, Siakam, Walker, Lowry, Brown, and VanVleet will battle it out at the top, and both coaches utilize a number of role players to fill various roles alongside those key players. Every sign points to a dogfight, and I’m going to roll with my original prediction. Experience rules the day in such a tight match-up.
Raptors in 7