It’s finally here.
There’s no more waiting, there’s no more buying and selling of hope, there’s no more discussion of what might be.
Forget about the new (temporary) mascot or the odd choice of Down With Webster as a halftime performance. We’ve got basketball to watch.
The 2013-14 Toronto Raptors season kicks off Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, as the Boston Celtics travel into town, hopefully for the same result as the two preseason contests between the teams.
Yes, the preseason is long enough to play a pair of games against the same team. While it’s difficult to learn much from those, the Raptors won each game and each first quarter (when the starters played). The Celtics starters played more minutes (118-76 and 130-118), too, so we may have identified the one team the Raptors bench might be better than.
But again, don’t take preseason games as predictive of a regular season contests. I was at one of these games, and trust me that it did not resemble real basketball.
With that said, the Raptors are certainly a better team than the Celtics, and the chances look good that the Raptors can improve to 11-8 in home openers and 10-9 in season opening games.
Guards: Kyle Lowry and Dwight Buycks/D.J. Augustin/Julyan Stone v. Avery Bradley and Phil Pressey
Bradley is a really good defender but is barely a competent offensive player. He gives back some of his defensive value by being unable to score. Even though he doesn’t turn the ball over a great deal or force shots on offense, starting with the ball in his hands isn’t a terribly good thing for the Celtics’ offense.
Lowry, meanwhile, is playing one-handed (or at least nine-fingered) but is reportedly working around the splint on his left (non-shooting) hand just fine. It’s conceivable that Lowry could have the ball even less than usual, deferring to the wings – one would think his off-hand dribbling would be suffering, and Bradley is a menace when it comes to stealing the ball. Still, Lowry can play competent (and perhaps less aggressive) defense while posing as a spacing threat off the ball.
Beyond the starters, it gets pretty ugly. Pressey has some potential, as do Buycks and Stone, but there’s not a presently-capable NBA backup in this game. Consider this – Buycks is the only backup point in this game who shot over 35 percent in the preseason.
Wings: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Terrence Ross and Landry Fields v. Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace, Jordan Crawford, MarShon Brooks and Courtney Lee
Chase them off the 3-point line. That’s the key against the Celtics wings, because none of them are dynamic offensive players. Instead, each can hit the triple just enough to make you cognizant of it. Nobody here is a marksman, but 3-point shooting is volatile, so you can’t just allow attempts and hope they hit at their career rates. Inside the arc, Green is the biggest threat as a talented but inconsistent scorer.
It sounded Tuesday like Wallace was a go for tonight, meaning at the very least Gay is going to have to work his tail off to score. DeRozan could see a lot of Bradley with Lowry banged up, though Green trying to guard a point on the pick-and-roll would then be a major advantage for Toronto (Green is a solid defender but I doubt his ability to stay in front of Lowry).
This is a pretty obvious advantage for the Raptors, especially if Gay and DeRozan maintain their preseason shot distribution choices and Fields and Ross continue to look like competent rotation players.
Bigs: Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray v. Kelly Olynyk, Vitor Faverani, Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries
The Raptors have the best two bigs in this game and that edge is stretched further by the one-game suspension to Jared Sullinger. Instead, Olynyk and Faverani are likely to play sizable minutes. Both are nice players and I’d love to see Olynyk do well, but they might be overexposed in 30-plus minutes, even against a Raptors duo that’s more defense than offense.
Johnson is likely to draw Olynyk in what should be a fun matchup. Olynyk is very talented offensively, but his first regular season NBA test comes against one of the best and most active defenders at the four. Meanwhile, he’s a complete sieve defensively, and the team may be able to make hay out of the pick-and-roll by testing Olynyk’s decision making and quickness.
As for Valanciunas, the man who will have eyes on him all around the league after a preseason of having his tires pumped, Faverani is a physical first opponent. Valanciunas received painfully few touches when checked by Faverani in the second preseason meeting (he went to work on Humphries in the first), so this will be somewhat new.
Overall Advantage: Raptors
The Raptors are a much better team than the Rondo-less Celtics, full stop. With what should be a lively home crowd and the adrenaline of a home opener, there’s no excuse for this not to be a victory.
Bookmakers Say: Raptors -8, with 49 percent of the action currently on Toronto, O/U 190
Basically, the money is currently split between sides meaning this is a well-set line (aren’t they all?). I’d lean towards the Raptors, even with the spread, and I’d definitely take the under with this Celtics team that will struggle to score but has four good defenders in the starting lineup.
I wish there was more of a tactical and/or statistical breakdown I could provide, but this will be head coach Brad Stevens first regular season game as an NBA coach, with a strange roster with a lot of new pieces. (That’s probably another mark in the Raptors favor, by the way.)
Am I just being too optimistic here, or sleeping on Boston? It seems like the talent disparity, especially in each team’s top-nine, is pretty glaring and the Raptors should cruise.
And if they win, fun fact: No team has lost their season opener and won the NBA Championship since Detroit in 2003-04. Raps win = #ringz.