As long as LeBron James remains employed by an Eastern Conference franchise his team will be the prohibitive favorite to represent this side of the earth’s apparent flat surface in June. Seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals will garner that type of street cred. And yet, when the NBA released the 2017-18 schedule I scoured the Raptors timetable to determine the first time Toronto would play the Boston Celtics.
This, because in an offseason peppered by a mass exodus of All-Stars jettisoning to new locations, the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston was the most intriguing. Not just because Irving landed in Boston, but the fact he requested a trade at all. After all, it was just three preseasons ago, Irving was caught on film exuberantly asking ‘Is this what the playoffs feel like?’ Three consecutive finals appearances, one championship trophy secured off his series clinching trey, and the likelihood of the impending 4-in-a-row later, and the Robin to the King’s Batman wanted out. But why?
Perhaps he sensed an inevitable July 2018 exit by the Land’s chosen son. Maybe whispers of ‘the tensest locker room of a current championship team ever‘ bore some truth. Some speculated the exit of General Manager David Griffin was at the root, but conflicting reports had Irving’s request occurring prior to the 2017 trade deadline. Regardless of the true catalyst, Irving’s desire to be the unequivocal leader of his own team drove ‘his decision‘ to request a trade. Ultimately, Kyrie Irving coveted the full spotlight and confidently believed he could channel the lessons learned to warrant his move. Still, under the circumstances his request was unprecedented. Time, will determine precisely how fortuitous it was.
The NBA’s version of Shylock:
In 2013 when Danny Ainge sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to Brooklyn in exchange for three of the Nets first round draft picks I began referring to him as the NBA’s version of Shylock. There is a definitive kinship to the Shakespearean pound of flesh merchant and Bean Town’s master chef. Notably, Brooklyn’s pound of flesh will be paid in full this summer, only it will arrive in Cleveland as part of the Kyrie Irving trade. Meanwhile Jason Terry is playing for the Bucks while both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are retired. To that end, Boston signed Pierce to a contract in July so the player drafted 10th in 1998 could retire as a Celtic. A fitting end to ‘The Truth’s 19-year career.
After the larcenous act Ainge pulled on billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov it seemed GM’s were antsy to conduct business with the wily sage. But, just like Shakespeare characters are wont to do, the NBA’s Shylock reappeared for a summer stock 2017 performance. Upon landing the 2017 top pick he traded it to Philadelphia in exchange for their third pick, plus a conditional first round pick (either in 2018 or 2019). The fact Jayson Tatum has been a core contributor in the current Celtic 11-game win streak while Markelle Fultz is probably making late night calls to Shaquille O’Neal inquiring how to become Icy Hot’s next spokesman only serves to add to the Ainge lore.
Incredibly, only four players who played in the Eastern Conference Finals return this season. Sophomore Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Al Horford. Five of the Celtics top rebounders (ranked 27th rebounding team) exited either via trade (Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder) or free agency (Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko). Additionally, in a move some questioned, Isaiah Thomas was sent to Cleveland. Since Thomas won’t take to the court until at least January and is looking for a maximum deal this summer, trading him for a 25 year old Irving with two years on his contract and championship experience feels like a big win for Ainge.
To bolster coach savant Brad Stevens’ roster, Ainge continued to make moves. Aside from the Irving trade the largest move was landing free agent Gordon Hayward. Long rumored to be desirous of reconnecting with his Butler coach this wasn’t deemed much of a shocker. Additionally, Ainge traded for Marcus Morris, plus a 2019 second round pick (Bradley), and signed free agents Shane Larkin and Aron Baynes. The latter has been a true x-factor for the squad, although Stevens may need to speak to him about his penchant for flailing in the key given the current status of the team’s super star.
The remainder of the roster is comprised of rookies Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele, Daniel Theis, Abdel Nader, Jabari Bird and Kadeem Allen. That’s seven rookies (counting Tatum)!
Boston picked preseason as East’s top seed:
In spite of the roster turnover and myriad of rookies Boston was favored to take the top rung in the East. Pundits in support felt the Celtics had a perfect complement of super stars, remaining veterans, youthful core and the ideal conductor in Brad Stevens. Critics pointed to integrating so much youth and new pieces to a squad who struggled to rebound. Detractors argued the Cavaliers, Wizards, Raptors (and in some circles the Bucks) were more likely to take the top rung.
Flash forward to the season opener and as fortune would have it Kyrie Irving arrived at Quicken Loans Arena to tip-off the season versus the Cavaliers. The stage was set for what surely would be among the top narratives of 2017-18. Then tragedy struck. In just a little over five minutes of his Celtics tenure, Gordon Hayward fell awkwardly and broke his leg. There are three occasions in basketball I recall as being that shocking – Jorge Garbajosa, Shaun Livingston and Paul George. In each, I had the same reaction — shock followed by a sick feeling which refused to dissipate. Regardless of your affiliations, that is something no one ever wants a player to experience.
Moving past that night the Celtics seem to have drawn strength from the adversity. Despite losing their first two games of the season Boston have reeled off 11 consecutive wins and rank as the best team in basketball. They’ve done this with Al Horford missing two games and as luck would have it Kyrie also missing the last game when an errant Aron Baynes elbow fractured a bone in his face.
There is no discounting how well the Celtics are playing. Inconceivably, this revamped squad, without Hayward, are the Association’s top ranked defense and rank third in rebounding. Offensively (17th), there remains work to do, but with a young squad focusing on defense first it bodes well for them. That said, a quick scan of Boston’s 11-game win streak doesn’t offer much in the way of top opponents. The Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs playing on the second night of a back-to-back and struggling Oklahoma City Thunder (who held an early 18-point lead) being the toughest during the 11 wins. Furthermore, they’ve played seven road games, but just one in the West. In fact, while the Raptors will have 12 Western road games out of the way by December 13th, in contrast. Boston won’t play their 12th Western road game until March 23rd and will ring in 2018 having only played four.
This may well be who the Celtics are regardless of their competition, but the true test comes in late February – March when they’ll play 11 of 15 games on the road. For now, however. they are the NBA’s feel good story of the early season.
Suffice to say my excitement about this matchup waned shortly after Kyrie Irving got hit by Aron Baynes’ elbow. Although this is a critical game for the Raptors the fact the Celtics are unlikely to be at full strength means Raptor Nation will need to wait until February 6 for their next opportunity.
Precisely how much of a true gauge this game will provide is arguably based on who suits up. The Celtics may be playing possum, but it’s unlikely Irving dresses. In spite of that fact, the reality is this game offers an opportunity to make the first statement. Boston will be seeking a 12th consecutive victory – no small feat given the loss of Hayward, Horford missing two games and Irving’s exit 1:50 into the Hornets’ game. For the Raptors, winning (particularly if the Celtics are at full strength) would serve as a reminder that team North of the border is still in the mix. Too little praise has been afforded to the Raptors who’ve had the hardest East schedule and faced far greater talent along the way to their 7-4 record.
A win to break the Celtics streak would bode well for the Raptors who will play six of the next eight games on the road. Of note, after the Celtics, Toronto head back West to play the Houston Rockets and Pelicans in a back-to-back set.
Lowry assimilating to new style:
Arguably the players most affected by the faster pace and changes to the offence via increased ball and player movement is Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Following the Pelicans game there was the perception in the RR chat that Lowry was lagging or had regressed. Granted his point totals are down, but in truth he’s on exactly the same pace (if not slightly ahead).
Never seems to be the guy on the receiving end that uses the term "minor", but here's the Kyrie update… pic.twitter.com/sAEtxZAaaK
— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) November 11, 2017
BOSTON CELTICS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: Terry Rozier
Shooting Guard: Jaylen Brown
Small Forward: Jayson Tatum
Power Forward: Marcus Morris
Center: *Al Horford
Point Guard: Marcus Smart, Shane Larkin (either could get the start)
Small Forward: Abdel Nader
Power Forward: Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele, Daniel Theis
Center: Aron Baynes
OUT: Kyrie Irving (expected to miss today’s game and return versus Brooklyn), Gordon Hayward (expected to miss season), *Al Horford (probable)
Venue: TD Garden – Boston, Massachusetts
Game Time: 3:30 PM ET
TV: Sportsnet One
Radio: Sportsnet 590 The FAN
The line: UPDATED
Finally came in – Raptors are favored by 2.5 (so Kyrie must definitely be out) with over/under 202.5