It’s been almost three months since the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics played each other. In that initial November 12 meeting the teams were still adjusting to new rotations and style changes. Toronto entered the match with a 7-4 record and were adapting to integrating their heavier player and ball movement offense. Boston was adjusting to the realities of losing Gordon Hayward for the season and were on an 11-game win streak (extended to NBA season high of 16 games).
Boston took the first game, winning by a single point. With 65 percent of the season complete each team has a viable argument to claim they are the best Eastern Conference squad. Or perhaps the better delineation would be most balanced and versatile roster. For now, the Celtics sit atop the east with a two game edge in the loss column on the Raptors. As the teams prepare to tip off in their second meeting both have made palpable strides and although the identity of each squad remains firmly defined, the product on the court has progressed.
In an 82 game schedule each match offers the same value, but to suggest this date doesn’t carry more weight, specifically from an emotional standpoint would be inaccurate. With the Cavaliers sputtering on and off the court, for the first time in years the path to coming out of the east appears to be wide open.
Heading into games on February 5, how has your favorite NBA team fared on both ends of the floor throughout the 2017-18 season? pic.twitter.com/8cW1tFPQBs
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) February 5, 2018
Trade Deadline Looms:
This week offers additional pressures with management on the clock for the next 54 hours as they approach the trade deadline on Thursday, February 8, at 3:00 p.m. ET. Danny Ainge (the NBA’s Shylock), made an early move to grab Greg Monroe off waivers without losing any assets or draft picks. However, per Adam Himmelsbach, the ever wily Ainge may wait until Thursday to officially sign Monroe to allow more flexibility for the deadline. Therefore, Jonas Valancuinas will have to wait until March 31 to reignite his rivalry with Monroe and showcase his new perimeter prowess and advanced skill set.
Hearing it's possible the Celtics could hold off on officially signing Monroe until after the trade deadline to maintain flexibility. Likely sooner.
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) February 4, 2018
Rumors are rift Ainge is pursuing Tyreke Evans and that the emotionally charged, picture punching Marcus Smart is being shopped. How this affects Smart’s mindset should a trade not occur will be something to keep an eye on. But, clearly the Celtics have tired of Smart’s off court emotions. The other oddity in this scenario is what losing Smart would do from a defensive standpoint to the Boston core.
Denver is among the teams that has explored Marcus Smart trade scenarios with Boston, according to league sources. Emmanuel Mudiay has been made available, sources say, but the Celts covet a first-round pick for Smart
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) February 5, 2018
As for what Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster should do, the answers are far less obvious. While Toronto has specific needs such as adding more perimeter scoring, toughness and rebounding. the reality is making a sweeping move to forfeit the future isn’t necessarily the wisest decision. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe discuss this in the recent “The Lowe Post” and offer a great explanation why maintaining the status quo may behoove the franchise moving forward. (Aside: it’s also a great listen regarding the futile situation Cleveland finds themselves in).
There are commonalities between the squads such as their youth. Boston has the fourth youngest NBA team (average age 24.8) while the Raptors (25.1) rank eighth. However, the key difference is playoff experience with every Raptor aside from OG Anunuoby playing critical minutes last post season both with the varsity team and G-League championship team. The Celtics may have Kyrie Irving, but of their youngsters only Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have extended playoff minutes. As much as the Raptors should always look to improve, equal weight should be given to growing assets and the benefits which can be garnered via consistency.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) February 5, 2018
Defense wins championships, but you still need buckets:
The east’s top seeded Celtics trade needs are more obvious and immediately essential than they are for the second seeded Raptors. To wit, the Celtics offense is conspicuously trailing their defense and therefore it dictates the necessity to add scoring.
Examining the Celtics’ offense punctuates how dire the situation is, and ironically points to what could result in the post season as opponents key in on Boston utilizing Kyrie Irving in an iso-heavy offense (sound familiar?).
Grant Hughes of Bleacher Report offers a sobering stat which may explain why Ainge is actively pursuing trades to bolster Boston’s offense.
Ranked 29th in offensive efficiency during January, they get particularly bucket-deficient whenever Kyrie Irving sits. Take Irving off the floor, and the Celtics score less efficiently than the Kings, who are ranked last in the league.
One explanation lies in Boston’s abysmal foul-drawing. The Celts rank 21st in free-throw rate (and 30th since Jan. 1)… Also, the Celtics lean significantly on a couple of young players—Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown—for their wing scoring. Though both have plenty of skill, the craft of call-baiting is often something that requires experience to perfect. You’d have to think Brown, given his ridiculous athleticism, will eventually learn to put himself in position to draw a ton of shooting fouls. He’s not there yet, though, and Tatum isn’t either. Neither player ranks in the top 50 in free-throw attempts per game.
Examination of the schedule highlights major differences in the teams’ route to this point in the season. The Raptors completed their entire opposite coast travel on January 20, whereas the Celtics still have close to half remaining. Boston played additional games early in preparation for their trip to London, England. Post All-Star break this could pay dividends for the Raptors since they won’t have to travel as far. Conversely, lottery teams in the latter stages of the season will be actively trying to tank. Regardless of effort however, the comparative travel for Boston is much more difficult post All-Star Break.
Keys for Game:
Injuries could play factor:
Boston limps into Toronto with the potential for Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Shane Larkin and Marcus Smart all out. Furthermore, with Ainge holding off on signing Greg Monroe it removes the potential for the Celtics to throw another offensive weapon and rebounder into the mix.
Conversely, the Raptors enter the night with a full complement of personnel.
For all the discussion surrounding the Celtics top ranked defense, it’s important not to lose sight of the team ranked third (Raptors). The key will be bringing the same amount of physicality and aggression to the court as Boston. In the first outing Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis utilized their size bullying the Raptors in a circa 1980 style defense.
It’s important for the Raptors front court to play with the same aggression, but be cognizant of the whistle. For Jakob Poeltl that may mean not sneezing, but seriously Valanciunas, Ibaka, Poeltl and Siakam will all need to bring their best defensive efforts to make sure the Celtics feel them.
The Raptors boast the best fourth quarter defense on the season, but the Celtics were the best in this area in January. In fairness, the Raptors blew some teams off the court in this same time frame which amounted to several easy fourth quarters. It’s unlikely to be the case tonight (although it would send a strong message). Rather, they’ll need to summon their best defensive effort
Space, Pace and Force:
In the first meeting the Raptors failed to move themselves or the ball, especially at game end. Boston will be more than happy to slow the pace and play in a half court set the entirety of the match, particularly if Irving and Morris can’t play. Toronto needs to approach this game similarly to how they did versus Milwaukee and Cleveland. Take control, push the pace, move the ball and dictate how the game will be played.
Heading into games on February 5, here's how all NBA rookies have fared in TPA throughout the 2017-18 season: pic.twitter.com/PyG4NeraSG
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) February 5, 2018
Low Key MVP’s:
Earlier this season the Milwaukee Bucks made statements following the overtime loss in Toronto. Specifically, Khris Middleton called the Bucks a better team who should have won and they would counter in Milwaukee. Similarly after the Bucks lost in the postseason Giannis Antetokounmpo called the Bucks the better team who should’ve moved on.
At some point perhaps the younger squads will learn not to provide fodder for motivation. DeMar DeRozan responded by shooting in the practice gym on New Year’s Eve instead of swilling champagne. It made me wonder if the reason DeRozan didn’t travel with Kyle Lowry to the Super Bowl was because he is in preparation mode for the Celtics.
If Irving can play expect him to suit up as the Celtics are just as keen to cement the top seed. Irving’s handles and ability to do things with a basketball are qualities worthy of respect. But, where I’m most impressed is by how seamlessly Irving stepped into the main leadership role of an extremely young squad, especially given the loss of Gordon Hayward in the first six minutes of the season. In hindsight, it makes you wonder whether his decision to leave Cleveland was simply fortuitous or based on blatant locker room discord.
After their 101-86 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Toronto Raptors are now 36-16. Here's how all #WeTheNorth players have fared in TPA throughout the 2017-18 season: pic.twitter.com/C3ybf13rdM
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) February 5, 2018
X – Factors:
Terry Rozier stepped in for Irving and Smart and is likely the reason Ainge feels he can shop the enigmatic Smart. In his first two starts he produced a triple-double and scored a career high 31 points. He’s scrappy, lengthy and offers a challenge for Lowry, Wright and VanVleet to defend.
Although Irving and head Coach Brad Stevens receive the lion’s share of the spotlight and accolades for the Celtics success Al Horford is equally deserving. The big man leads the Celtics in areas expected (rebounds, blocks, effective field goal percentage), but he is the key to Celtics ball movement and is the top assist producer with 5.3 per game.
Where do I start? Since the last meeting against the Celtics several players have showcased growth and become integral to the Raptors success. Whether it’s Valanciunas overall improvements, VanVleet’s fourth quarter production, Anunoby’s ascension into the starting rotation or the Raptors reserve unit’s progress this team is vastly different from who the Celtics played in November.
ASSIGNED TO G-LEAGUE (RAPTORS 905): Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie
BOSTON CELTICS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: *Kyrie Irving (Terry Rozier)
Shooting Guard: Jaylen Brown
Small Forward: Jayson Tatum
Power Forward: Al Horford
Center: Aron Baynes
BOSTON CELTIC RESERVES:
Shooting Guard: Kadeem Allen, Abdel Nader
Power Forward: Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye.**Daniel Theis
Notes: I’ve noted the players at their natural position of power forward although **Theis specifically will get time at center.
- *Kyrie Irving has missed the last three games due to a thigh contusion. No word on his availability yet (but my gut says he goes if at all possible).
- Marcus Morris (hip contusion) missed last two games. Traveling with team, but status unknown.
- Shane Larkin (knee soreness) missed last four games. Out versus Raptors.
- Marcus Smart (hand laceration) out until mid February
- Gordon Hayward (ankle/fractured tibia) out for season
After their 97-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Boston Celtics are now 39-15. Here's how all #Celtics players have fared in TPA throughout the 2017-18 season: pic.twitter.com/dm3CBxUo3l
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) February 5, 2018
Venue: Air Canada Center, Toronto, Ontario
Game Time: 7:30 PM ET
TV: TSN 1 through 4
Radio: Sportsnet 590 The FAN
The line: As of posting the line remains off which is likely a product of not knowing whether Kyrie Irving will dress.