Gameday: Celtics @ Raptors, Jan. 9

The No. 2 spot in the East is on the line.

It probably shouldn’t, but suddenly a single game in the middle of January feels like it’s carrying a fair amount of importance.

Losers of five of their last seven and mired in what can safely be called their worst defensive stretch of the season, the Toronto Raptors are in need of a victory to right the ship. The concerns about fatigue and travel have been real, but their first extended time at home in nearly a month and a day off Monday should eliminate that as a reason for a dip in play. They can ill afford to come out tired, too, because the visiting Boston Celtics are coming in hot. The Celtics are winners of 10 of their last 12, and while they’re not at full strength just yet, they’ll have the benefit of Isaiah Thomas, who didn’t play the last time the two teams met (the Raptors, meanwhile, get DeMarre Carroll back for this one).

It is not something to fret about here at the midway point of the season and two meetings between the teams still to go, but the Celtics will pull even with the Raptors with a victory. Boston has long been presumed Toronto’s top competition for the two-seed, they’re playing much better basketball over the last couple of weeks, and now they have a chance to make the standings back up what they’ve believed, internally, since the offseason. Toronto probably cares a little less, knowing the big-picture situation they’re in. Still, they need a win regardless, and beating a team that’s roughly on their level before the schedule turns easier wouldn’t be the worst way to start to turn things around.

The game tips off at 7:30 p.m. on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Michael Pina of Bleacher Report, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: Unrelated to the Celtics, you’ve been fairly critical of DeMarre Carroll over the last couple of games (and I know you catch a lot of Raptors ball, in general). Justifiably so, at least for halves at a time. Now a year removed from surgery, with no back-to-back restriction, and able to play 40 minutes, how much more “maybe he’ll get back to that level” leash does he have left with you?

Michael Pina: I like DeMarre Carroll, respect what he brings to the table and am a happier NBA observer when he’s healthy. He’s more efficient than he was a year ago, but it’s clear, to me, that he’s entering (entered?) a less effective phase of his career, one I’m sure Masai Ujiri wishes he could’ve avoided for another year or two. Carroll is an adequate three-point shooter, and that’s good because Toronto’s offense doesn’t need much more out of him right now. But he’s (understandably) lost a step guarding in space and, though far from bad overall, isn’t quite good enough on that end to unlock small-ball units that could give this team’s defense some athletic juice. Several factors go into that—roster construction, coaching, etc.—and lineups with Carroll at the four have performed well in limited time, but it would clearly be more convenient for everyone if Carroll was a bit less rickety. (Is it too harsh to suggest that Norm Powell would push Carroll out of the rotation if he grew three inches tomorrow?)

Blake Murphy: Since the last Celtics-Raptors meeting, Boston’s really taken off, going 10-4 (including their current 10-2 stretch). We had talked about how Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford absences had prevented the team from developing the requisite familiarity that is the building block for chemistry/other lovely ethereal things. Is that at the root of the turnaround? What have they gotten better at as they learn to play with each other more?

Michael Pina: Health is nice, and having Al Horford back has helped stabilize a defense that still underperforms more than it should. But the primary reason for their recent success is Isaiah Thomas’ rapid climb into an impossibly crowded MVP discussion. He obviously won’t win the award, but after averaging an efficient 30.3 points per game in December, Thomas is now fifth in scoring, sixth in usage percentage, and eighth in PER. He’s unstoppable one-man offense that doesn’t take a night off and should probably start in the All-Star game. Defense is a concern, as it’ll always be when you’re 5’9″ at this level, but Thomas is an offensive superstar, especially in the 4th quarter. Those guys are rare and they really matter.

Blake Murphy: Kyle Lowry, not DeMar DeRozan, went off in the last meeting between the two sides. DeRozan is the focus of most opponent gameplans, and the Celtics can throw a lot of different looks at him. But if Boston struggled to contain Lowry with Thomas out (and thus, superior defenders on him more often), what’s their best bet to contain him when Thomas is going to see at least a share of the matchup?

Michael Pina: Lowry was a monster in Boston, but I wonder if he would’ve eviscerated the Celtics as completely as he did had he been forced to scurry around and guard Isaiah Thomas that night on the other end. (The answer is “probably!”) With regards to Tuesday night’s re-match, Avery Bradley missed Saturday night’s game against the Pelicans due to a strained Achilles and he’s out again here. Even with him sidelined, the Celtics will still hide Thomas on Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross and maybe even the aforementioned Carroll a little bit (Boston takes advantage whenever Thomas catches larger defenders in a crossmatch going the other way). He’ll also find himself on Lowry, but in that situation the Celtics will likely switch a bunch and pray Lowry doesn’t burn its bigs too badly.

Blake Murphy: These teams rank 30th (Toronto) and 29th (Boston) in defensive rebounding. Hand-shake agreement before the game that all missed shots result in a change of possession and a dead ball?

Michael Pina: *Shakes hand/quietly sobs*

Blake Murphy: Is there a piece likely to hit the market that you, hypothetical Celtics GM, would cash in the Nets pick for? 

Michael Pina: Outside of Paul George, and some sort of assurance that he’d re-sign for five years, there’s no semi-realistic candidate out there. Jimmy Butler is a very nice player on a very nice contract, but he’s also played a ton of minutes, loves having the ball in his hands and isn’t quite on George’s level (in my opinion) as a two-way force capable of lifting this team past the Cleveland Cavaliers.

If I’m Danny Ainge, I keep my ears open but don’t do anything until free agency, when max cap space can lure Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward or some other quality, non All-Star onboard (think Serge Ibaka) without having to forfeit picks and players. In that scenario, the Celtics would still have whoever they selected in this year’s draft, Jaylen Brown, and the 2018 Nets pick to dangle in a trade, should a superstar become available before the 2018 trade deadline.

Raptors updates
Everyone’s healthy that’s expected to be healthy, though two players remain on assignment with Raptors 905. The Raptors will go 11-deep, then, with the ability to mix and match lineups to meet Boston going small or stretching out big. Carroll’s presence here opes up some options for going smaller, Patrick Patterson can likely spot in on Al Horford at the five if needed, and Norman Powell was extremely effective playing up a position the last time the teams met, scoring 20 points with five steals in 35 minutes. Dwane Casey will have plenty of flexibility to go smaller, to throw length out across the wing positions, and to get additional ball-handlers on the floor to help alleviate the pressure from Boston’s strong perimeter defense.

That still leaves the question of who will start at power forward, and the two teams may play a bit of chicken stalling to announce it. The Raptors could start Powell once again, sliding Carroll to the four, but the Celtics can counter big with Amir Johnson and swing the rebounding battle early. The Raptors could go back to starting Lucas Nogueira in a dual-center look, but that becomes untenable if Boston downsizes or if they start Jonas Jerebko. Whoever starts (my guess is Powell, unless Pascal Siakam is suddenly back in the rotation), expect Casey and Brad Stevens to feel things out for most of the first three quarters before committing to something down the stretch (likely both sides playing small, with Carroll and Jae Crowder as power forwards).

Once again, the value of Casey’s flexibility and some of the silver lining of dealing with injuries shows here. The Raptors have learned to play a lot of different ways, and while they don’t always work, they’re a lot more familiar going a lot more ways than in years past.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross
PF: Starting PF Du Jour, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
Assigned: Fred VanVleet, Bruno Caboclo
TBD: None
OUT: Delon Wright, Jared Sullinger

Celtics updates
The Celtics were without Thomas in the first meeting, and they’ll be without Avery Bradley here due to an Achilles injury. Bradley’s a big loss as far as defending Lowry goes, and while he gives up some size to DeRozan, he certainly would have been an option there, as well. That shifts the defensive load on the Raptors’ stars to Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, players who are definitely up for the challenge and have had varying degrees of success in the past. This is one of those games where Toronto will need big contributions from its role players, helping beat traps, knock down open looks, or, in the case of Carroll or Powell, taking advantage of a cross-match onto a small.

Boston has begun to gain a familiarity together, but some of that goes out the window without Bradley. He’s a part of nine of the team’s 11-most commonly used lineups, and there are only two groups without him that have played at least 23 minutes together. One of those is the likely starters, a group that has a plus-12.8 net rating over 46 minutes, and the other is a nearly complete hockey substitution second unit (when Smart was coming off the bench), which has proven incapable of scoring over 45 minutes. This won’t be an excuse for Boston, but it would make a victory even more impressive without one of their primary defensive weapons and their leader in minutes played.

Getting Thomas back is huge, of course. He’s averaging 28 points in 33.7 minutes, kicking in 6.1 assists, scoring with ruthless efficiency, living at the free-throw line…he’s been a damn terror. Cory Joseph has struggled on defense of late, and he needs to figure that out, like, immediately unless he’s going to surrender minutes to Powell or even Terrence Ross here, because I can’t imagine the Raptors want Lowry spending too much of his time on Thomas, at least until late.

Tyler Zeller (sinus infection [same]) is out, too, and James Young (ankle) is questionable but out of the rotation, anyway.

PG: Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier, Demetrius Jackson
SG: Marcus Smart, Gerald Green
SF: Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, (James Young)
PF: Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Jordan Mickey
C: Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk
TBD: James Young
Out: Avery Bradley, Tyler Zeller

The line
The Raptors are 4.5-point favorites with a 218 over-under. That total seems a bit high, but all of the Raptors’ totals seem a bit high this year, and they keep hitting them anyway. I’m not sure about the spread, though. The Raptors can and should win this game, but the try-hards in Boston seem likely to make it a tough fight. Beating Boston with some emphasis would be nice. Losing would probably make Will have a meltdown on the reaction podcast.

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