Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Celtics, March 31

At season start few envisioned this iteration of the Toronto Raptors would deliver the most exciting and potentially best campaign in club history. Just two seasons removed from what many dubbed ‘The Magical Season,” it seems almost unfathomable these re-stylized Raptors are on the precipice of creating an entirely new standard of franchise benchmarks.

Yet, this is where the Raptors and their fan base find themselves. Nervously fixated on finishing strong to capture the Eastern Conference (EC) top seed and anxiously approaching a postseason where all the demons of years past can be exorcised.

Only Boston can deter Toronto from claiming the conference’s top rung, so it’s rather fitting the Raptors will play the Celtics twice in the next five days. However, a Raptors win today would all but erase the Celtics hopes. Technically it wouldn’t eliminate the Celtics top seed possibility. However, untouchable in second, would Brad Stevens want to keep pushing at this point when the magic number would be reduced to three? Logically, Stevens would recognize his injury riddled squad would be better served by getting some rest in preparation for the postseason.

With that, let’s examine the dynamics of the matchup approaching tip off.

Countdown:

Although not the typical rocket launch countdown, the following represents some pivotal numbers remaining in the stretch run.

  • Seven: Number of games remaining in Toronto and Boston 2017-18 regular season schedule
  • Six: Number of times the Celtics got two days off in a row since February 24 (the last time Raptors had consecutive days off prior to this week).
  • Five: Magic number (any combination of Raptors wins and Celtics losses equalling five) for Raptors to clinch EC top seed. Raptors are also the lone NBA team with the distinction of ranking top five in offense (3), defense (5) and net differential (3). And, five more victories would produce the first 60 win season in franchise history.
  • Four: Most difficult stretch of games remaining.  This segment begins today at Boston, at Cavaliers|Celtics back to back set on Tuesday|Wednesday (April 3, 4) and finishes Friday with Pacers.
  • Three: 3-0, Raptors record in games following three consecutive days rest.
  • Two: With another two wins the Raptors set a new franchise season best for wins (57).
  • One: A few ‘ones’ to address – current seed of Raptors in EC, first time Toronto can claim the top seed and home court throughout EC playoff rounds and the one team who beat the 14-1 Rockets in March.

Scheduling Notes:

Despite the recent 3-3 record it’s not time to panic. To wit, the above mentioned schedule highlighted the lack of rest days or practice time.  Allowing the Thunder and Cavaliers to score 132 points wasn’t ideal, however it was the only time this season the Raptors allowed teams to score over 130 points.

Expanding beyond to 120+ point games, the Raptors only gave up that many points on six occasions including two in overtime. Even the Celtic’s stifling defensive squad allowed four such 120+ games. Comparatively the Rockets experienced this event seven times, Warriors 12 and Cavaliers 14 times.

Furthermore, the Raptors haven’t lost three games in a row all season and are the only NBA team not to do so. Nor have they lost two in a row since January 13 (Warriors), 15 (76ers). In fact, Toronto only lost back to back games four times the entire season.

Earlier in the season it seemed the schedule favored Toronto over Boston down the stretch given the sheer number of opposite coast games the Celtics would play post break. In retrospect, facing tanking squads late worked to the Celtics benefit. Still, there is no discounting the youngsters ability to win in Portland and Utah as they did on their recent final west coast swing.

Clearly the area of the Raptors game which suffered the most without rest and practice was their defense. Serge Ibaka and DeMar DeRozan looked the most fatigued over these past six games, although the latter is most likely emotional spent as well given his personal situation. Following the match versus Boston tonight they’ll get two more days off prior to the Cavaliers – Celtics back to back.

Suffice to say, the Raptors were in dire need of these three days to refocus and prepare to close out the schedule which includes two sets of back to back games.  Having said that, rhythm and flow are critical to maintaining momentum, so these last seven games in the next 12 days should provide the perfect combination of quality competition and opportunities to test and tweak system issues.

Stat Comparison:

Despite the injuries, the Celtics continue to win and remain top five (4th) overall in the league. Clearly, Boston’s defense is their calling card. They top the Association in perimeter defense and rank second for points allowed and overall opponent field goal percent. Other clear areas where the Celtics excel is limiting second chance opportunities and fast break scoring.

Even with the recent rash of high scoring games by opponents the Raptors aren’t exactly pushovers defensively. Their fifth ranked defense is bolstered by their ability to force turnovers, but limit opposing teams from doing the same. They rank fifth in opponent field goal percent and as the next chart highlights improve defensively when it matters most.

Notably, with the win over Denver the Raptors moved past the Warriors into second place overall.

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Bench vs Starters| Quarter Dominance:

With so much emphasis on Toronto’s bench, I decided to take a look at each unit and compare it to their opponent. The key takeaway is while the Raptors bench is the cream of the NBA crop, Toronto’s starters are equally impressive, albeit not as robust defensively.  Boston’s defense is adept with whatever unit is on the court, but they take a major slide offensively when their reserves hit the court.

A look a the chart below isolates each team by quarter in the three key categories and this provides the best information for Dwane Casey’s chalkboard game preparation.

Coinciding with Boston’s reserves subbing into the game their offense dips dramatically in the second quarter and picks up significantly in the final frame with the starters back on the floor. Arguably the big surprise is the Celtics stellar defense is at its worst in the final frame.  This occurs because the Celtics often find themselves needing to come from behind. And, while the comebacks are impressive, if a squad plays lockdown defense in this quarter eventually the Celtics well may run dry.

Enter the Raptors ‘hybrid’ unit which utilizes a combination of starters and reserves who’ve performed the best that day depending on the matchup. In this scribes humble opinion this is the unit everyone seems to be overlooking. Fixation on the bench and how they’ll perform in the postseason ignores the fact the Raptors best defensive unit is this hybrid quintet. This is backed up via their top ranked defense in the fourth quarter. The beauty of this unit is because Casey utilized his roster with equal aplomb he can pick and choose his closing five based on who is rolling that day and for specific defensive assignments.

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 Key Matchups:

Terry Rozier has stepped up in Irving’s absence producing 17.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists while shooting 41.2 percent from deep in his last eight games. Likewise Shane Larkin has proven to be a scrappy defender offering excellence in the backup point guard role. Overall, the Raptors have the advantage since Delon Wright can spend time on Rozier and his length caused issues for the Celtic guard in their second meeting. With the combination of Lowry, Wright and Fred VanVleet it favors Toronto.

In the frontcourt a rested Serge Ibaka should be ready to offset Al Horford and Valanciunas will either be happy battling the gritty Aron Baynes or renewing old rivalries with Greg Monroe.

The key for Boston will be to utilize their young talented wings (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown) with a view to offsetting DeMar DeRozan and CJ Miles. A good test for OG Anunoby will be in guarding Tatum and limiting his offensive production.

The x-factors (not to be redundant because I always seem to lean this way) is Pascal Siakam who has been on a terror of late showcasing his improved ball handling and distribution, increasing offensive tool box and absolute lock down defense late in games.

https://twitter.com/NBA_Math/status/979777177267900426

Statement Time:

While it’s important not to get sedentary with expectations of being able to flip a switch it’s doubtful the Raptors will fall into that mindset. Not with memories of the 2014-15 first round sweep by the Wizards. Or more importantly, last season’s semi final Cavaliers sweep, punctuated by  LeBron (faux) beer drinking and off the backboard All-Star style dunk still resonating on social media.

And, while some pundits south of the border are gaining respect for this accomplished Raptors squad they are an equal number who refuse to believe the Raptors are a threat.

If Dwane Casey needs fodder to fuel his troop, compiling a mixed reel of Shaquille O’Neal‘s weekly assertion of Kyle Lowry the playoff choker or Paul Pierce‘s continual shade regarding the lack of ‘qualified it’ talent and inexperienced youth as a few to start with.

Holes can be easily poked in these thought processes since the same talking heads believe Chris Paul will excel despite never being past the second round or that the youngsters from the Celtics (limited playoff experience) or Sixers (no playoff experience) are teams to be reckoned with.

The point is, as much as the fanbase finds themselves in the proverbial  ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ mindset, now is the time to embrace the facts. These point to a first Eastern Conference top seeding and a deep playoff run with a very good chance of a NBA Finals appearance.

Just like we’ve lamented over previous Raptors teams relying on the past instead of building on daily habits to produce results the same holds true this season.

To that end, no Eastern Conference team has been more consistent on both sides of the hardwood than the Toronto Raptors. Furthermore, each Christmas non invite, lack of Nationally televised games and criticism of this Raptors squads which fires up the fanbase is the same angst which fuels the players.

It’s a new generation of Toronto Raptors – and this evening I fully expect this squad to punctuate that fact with a win in Bean Town.

Rotations:

TORONTO RAPTORS STARTING 5:
Point Guard:Kyle Lowry
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan
Small Forward: OG Anunoby
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka
Center:Jonas Valanciunas

TORONTO RAPTORS RESERVES:
Point GuardDelon Wright, Fred VanVleet
Shooting GuardNorman Powell
Small Forward: C.J. Miles
Power ForwardPascal Siakam
Center: Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira

905Malcolm Miller, Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie *Congratulations to 905 on playoff win Friday. My assumption is these four players remain in Toronto and Raptors travel with the 12 listed.

INJURED: 

  • DeMar DeRozan was excused from practice to travel home this week, but is expected to be with team in Boston.
  • Norman Powell is also listed as available despite hurting his ankle last week.

BOSTON CELTICS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: Terry Rozier
Shooting Guard: Jaylen Brown
Small Forward: Jayson Tatum
Power Forward: (Al Horford)
Center: Aron Baynes

BOSTON CELTIC RESERVES:
Point Guard: Shane Larkin
Shooting Guard: Kadeem Allen, Abdel NaderJabari Bird
Small Forward:
Power Forward: (Marcus Morris), Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye
Center: Greg Monroe

 INJURED: 
  • Al Horford (ankle) although he’s listed as questionable after missing the last game odds are he’ll suit up for this game. In the event Horford is a no go expect Yabusele to replace him if Morris also can’t go.
  • Marcus Morris (ankle) like Horford he missed the last game nursing an ankle sprain, and is also listed as questionable. And similar to Horford is likely to play.
  • Kyrie Irving (knee) expected to miss between three to six weeks (early May) following a procedure to alleviate soreness and remove wires from his previously injured kneecap.
  • Marcus Smart (torn tendon in thumb) following surgery is expected to miss between six to eight weeks (mid May).
  • Daniel Theis (knee –  torn meniscus) underwent season-ending surgery.
  • Gordon Hayward (dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia) – out for season following surgery.

Game Details:

Venue: TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts

Game Time: 7:30 PM ET

TV: Sportsnet One, NBA TV

Radio: Sportsnet 590 The FAN

The line: As of posting the line remains off which is likely a product of a number of the key Celtics players being questionable. I think it’s Brad Stevens playing possum and we’ll learn pregame both Horford and Morris are playing. UPDATE: line in at 2:30 – Raptors are favorite by 4.5 points and over/under of 204.5 points.

If you want to keep in touch you can follow me on twitter, or catch me waxing poetic about the OKC Thunder at Thunderous Intentions

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