Pre-game news & notes: Brown, Horford, and Morris to play for Celtics, Larkin out sick

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For the foreseeable future, there will never be a game between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics that doesn’t feel big. The idea of the two sides being rivals has been downplayed, as there’s been no tangible animosity and no playoff battle to forge the competitive fire and truly ignite fanbase ire. Still, for at least the last few years, the Raptors and Celtics have occupied a similar space, playing to a similar record and holding a similar place in the Eastern Conference echelon. They may not be rivals, but they have most certainly been peers.

Saturday, then, is interesting on several fronts. The foremost of those is the No. 1 seed in the East, which the Raptors can all but lock up with a victory. A win would put Toronto four games up on Boston with six to go and lock in the tiebreaker scenarios for the Raptors, effectively sealing the race. As Brad Stevens and Dwane Casey jockey for late positioning in the Coach of the Year voting, these late two meetings may offer some extra juice to the primacy effect there, too. And there’s the matter of the Raptors getting yet another test against stiff competition as they look to hit their stride for April 14 or 15.

There are caveats hanging over the game, as there always are. The Raptors are exceptionally well-rested for a change, while the Celtics are down nearly a third of their roster. Boston plays a spirited brand of basketball even – and maybe especially – when shorthanded though, and they are hungrier here. Fred VanVleet suggested this week that the media may be over-emphasizing these late-season meetings with top teams, and that’s easy to understand – the Raptors are in the driver’s seat for home court through to the NBA Finals (and maybe against everyone but Houston once there), and they know who and what they are.

But the game feels big despite the caveats. The one-seed is in the balance, slanderous Twitter material is on the line for the fanbases (Will has already recorded two versions of the reaction podcast), and Raptors-Celtics just kind of always feels like a big deal now. There’s a rematch Wednesday, too, and while the Raptors will be on a tough back-to-back in that situation, these two meetings figure to have some educational value on top of determining the top seed in the conference. It’s a big one, all due respect to The Wave God.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590. You can check out the full game preview here.

Raptors updates
Toronto enters completely healthy and coming off of three consecutive days off. That meant a legitimate off day and two actual practice days, which have been incredibly rare since the All-Star break. Whether that makes a material difference or not in this game is unclear, but the benefits should be felt over the coming two weeks, especially with another two days off before a late five-in-seven stretch to push to the finish line. Interestingly, the Raptors as a team actually have a higher true-shooting percentage and assist percentage on the second night of a back-to-back, likely owing to their youth and depth. The time off should help their four players who are 28 and older, though, even if the numbers only shift dramatically for Serge Ibaka with no rest.

In terms of the rotation, you should know what to expect by now. The starters have a net rating of plus-11.5 in 721 minutes and the all-bench group has a net rating of plus-22.2 in 289 minutes. That’s the third-best mark for any lineup with 400 or more minutes and the best mark of any lineup with 275 or more minutes (arbitrary endpoints!), and both have remained strong positives despite some post-break slippage for the team’s defense (plus-8.6 and plus-8.7, respectively). There probably won’t be a lot of change here, unless the team’s used the time off to change a season-long course.

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

Celtics updates
Boston is coming in quite banged up here, which is really unfortunate. Kyrie Irving still has a broad return timeline following a minor knee surgery, Marcus Smart won’t be back until maybe the second round of the playoffs, there hasn’t been much suggestion Gordon Hayward will make an unexpected late-season return, and Daniel Theis underwent season-ending surgery two weeks back. It’s a lot going on at once.

On top of all of that, Jaylen Brown was questionable with a toe injury but will play. At the very least, Marcus Morris and Al Horford weren’t on Saturday’s injury report, their respective ankle injuries apparently behind them.

The Celtics have fought through all of this, though, winning five in a row, four of which were out west and three of which were against likely playoff teams. They leave it all out there, and their ability to grit and grind their way to close games puts them in a position to steal games late. Stevens has done a great job, Brown, Terry Rozier, and Jayson Tatum have stepped into bigger roles exceptionally well, and unlikely lineups or zone looks have given the team a boost depending on the night. Boston doesn’t figure to have a lineup available that’s played even 70 minutes together, and yet they keep managing. The Raptors can’t look at the inactive list and think anything of it.

UPDATE: Per Celtics broadcaster Sean Grande, you can add Shane Larkin to the injured list, too. He’s out with an illness, leaving feisty two-way player Kadeem Allen as Boston’s second point guard. It’s a drop-off with how well Larkin has been playing, but Allen can get into jerseys and force turnovers if the Raptors aren’t careful.

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


  • Raptors 905 won their one-game playoff series with Grand Rapids on Friday, which means they’ve made it through to the Eastern Conference semi-finals. They’ll play the Westchester Knicks on the road on Monday, and Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Malachi Richardson are all with the team in an attempt to repeat as champions.
  • Over at The Athletic, I wrote about how I’ve come around on the all-bench unit as a playoff weapon over the course of the season and what I’ve learned in the process.
  • Applications for the Wayne Embry Fellowship open up on April 2. Sam, this year’s fellow, seems to be having a blast and learning a lot.
  • The Wizards won this afternoon, which should shrink their odds of landing in the No. 8 spot back a shade below 20 percent. Most models still have Milwaukee finishing eighth more than either Washington or Miami, but it’s hovered around a 50/25/25 or 55/25/20 split over the last few days. Miami hosts Brooklyn tonight, which is also relevant to that battle, while the Bucks are off.
    • Cleveland, Indiana, and Philadelphia are all off. With Philly down Joel Embiid and Cleveland now down George Hill, figuring out how the 3-4-5 might break is very difficult. Tuesday could certainly shape up as a Pyrrhic victory of sorts if the Raptors win in Cleveland.
  • The Bruins played a home game this afternoon and the arena was being switched over quickly and late. ACC staff better.

The line
The Raptors are 4-point favorites with a 204 over-under.

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