Pre-game news & notes: Irving sits, Horford returns for matinee

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Talk about running into a hot opponent. The Boston Celtics host the Toronto Raptors on Sunday afternoon, and they do so as winners of 11 in a row following an 0-2 start. It’s not just the volume or consistency of the wins, either – Boston has pulled this streak off without major offseason acquisition Gordon Hayward, without holdover star Al Horford for some of that time, without Marcus Morris early on, and even without Kyrie Irving for the bulk of a rousing Friday victory.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s been Boston’s defense carrying them. After losing Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Hayward, it looked like Boston may be too light on individual defenders to thrive on that end of the floor. Enter Brad Stevens, uberpest Marcus Smart, and far-too-rapidly developing wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and the Celtics are the league’s best defense so far. They rarely foul, they’ve been much better than anticipated on their own glass, and opponents are shooting a worse effective field-goal percentage against them than against any other team in the league. They are smart, disciplined, and they are try-hards (in the most complimentary and annoying sense of the word).

The Raptors will have their work cut out for them. Fans surely want Toronto to be the team to snap the streak – in Boston, no less – given the mini-rivalry these fanbases (if not necessarily the teams themselves) have built the last two years. To do so, the Raptors will have to find a better place defensively than where they’ve been residing of late. Boston could be without two key offensive pieces, and even if it’s only one player sidelined, the Raptors will need to lock in at that end and hold a mediocre-thus-far offense to a low number, because points won’t be incredibly easy to come by at the other end like they have been most nights so far.

This should be a lot of fun. With a lot of anxiety by mid-November standards. And a lot of salt. (And yes, I realize that optically it’s a no-win spot for the Raptors, who will either beat an unhealthy Celtics team or be the latest odds “overcome” by Boston, but you can still enjoy a victory.)

The game tips off at 3:30 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
The Raptors remain in a state of trying to figure out how to narrow their rotation with nobody really offering head coach Dwane Casey a compelling reason to sit them down. Were it to trim itself to 10 at some point – and that point will come, because young players will slump or stumble and Casey will want to get a better feel for how the rotation best looks in high-leverage games – Fred VanVleet would seem to be the odd man out on merit, with Delon Wright sliding back to point guard. The Raptors like the dual ball-handler approach, though, and Wright’s defense against wings has been stellar.

The frontcourt remains a mess to sort out and rankings vary depending on risk preference and the appetite for upside. Were anyone to be on the outs there, it may be Lucas Nogueira after a foul-heavy performance Thursday, and even then, he offers a skillset no other big on the roster can replicate. Jakob Poeltl has been too steady to be bumped, and Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have both played well enough to receive closing minutes of late.

As always, this is better than not having enough good players to fill a rotation, but it needs to get sorted out at some point. As a red-hot team, the Celtics would make sense as an opponent to tighten things up against, or Casey could read Boston’s lineup versatility as an argument for throwing a lot of different looks at them in the second unit.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie, Bruno Caboclo

Celtics updates
Already down Gordon Hayward long-term, the Celtics could be without their other two stars here.

Al Horford  is on the comeback trail from a concussion and was reportedly close to playing Friday, and so he’s listed as probable here. If he can go, the question would become whether the Celtics start him at power forward or center. Playing big with Horford and Aron Baynes is a better defensive approach opposite Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, but Stevens could prefer a smaller look with Marcus Morris at the four for the advantages at the other end, where Valanciunas would have to guard the 3-point line. In any case, Horford is a matchup problem, a quality defender with range and plus-passing ability.

Kyrie Irving left Friday’s game with a facial fracture and is considered doubtful here. If he can’t go, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier would assume his minutes, with Shane Larkin potentially factoring in more if Stevens doesn’t want to use Smart as the de facto point guard too much. Those are different looks than Irving, who has a preternatural scoring ability, but Rozier is much improved on offense and Smart is a high-end defensive piece. There are no real holes in this rotation, painful though that is to admit.

UPDATE: Irving is out, Horford is back. No word on starters yet.

UPDATE II: Smart starts for Irving, Horford slots in at power forward.

PG: Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin
SG: Jaylen Brown, Abdel Nader
SF: Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye
PF: Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis
C: Aron Baynes, Guerschon Yabusele
OUT: Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving
TBD: None
Maine: Jabari Bird, Kadeem Allen


  • Raptors 905 tip off at 3 p.m., with Bruno Caboclo and Alfonzo McKinnie in the lineup. We’ll have coverage of that one as usual despite the overlap. Two screens but I got me a few on, and all that. The 905 are back home Tuesday morning and it seems unlikely either player will rejoin the Raptors until the parent club is back off the road, barring injury.
  • The Raptors have two more at home before hitting the road again for three. Later this month we’re giving away another pair of tickets with InTheActionSeats.com:

  • The Raptors are holding a design contest where fans can submit gameday graphics the team may use. Details here.

The line
The Raptors opened as 2-point underdogs and the line has since edged to Celtics -2.5 With Irving and Horford up in the air, that might seem Boston-friendly, but they’ve been playing exceptionally well and it’s a road afternoon game, which can induce lethargy. This is a win the Raptors should want desperately, and I’d expect the line to move a full point in either direction once we know who’s in and out for Boston. The over-under has nudged from 199.5 to 202.

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