Pre-Game

Gameday: Celtics @ Raptors, April 4

The Toronto Raptors did themselves no favors on Tuesday, then got one from the Milwaukee Bucks. Wednesday could have been a massive game for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and instead, there’s a modicum of a cushion for the Raptors. A visit from the Boston Celtics is still a huge meeting, though, with the Raptors able to effectively lock up the top spot in the table. It’s just no longer quite literally on the line in this game alone.

According to the latest projections from Jacob Goldstein, the Raptors now hold a 77-percent chance of landing in the top spot. Basketball Reference has them at 87.5, and FiveThirtyEight and ESPN’s BPI both have the Raptors finishing two or more games ahead. Mathematically, the Raptors remain in the driver’s seat, which is important. Those numbers aren’t 100 percent, and one game – one bad loss, especially to the Celtics – can swing things dramatically with so little sample left. The Raptors did the bulk of their work earlier in the year, and they still need to close it out here.

Forgive the general public if they don’t feel as comfortable as that might suggest – the team has lost five of eight, is at risk of losing a third in a row for the first time all season here, and they haven’t at all looked like themselves the last two weeks. (Unless you want to be sarcastic and say they’ve looked exactly like themselves the last two weeks, which I can’t begrudge you.) They’ve fallen to 24th in defense over the last month and ninth in net rating, and while that’s been against a tough schedule and with the league’s best offense, they’ve gotten away from what made them so successful all year.

“We’re letting other teams dictate how we play defense by us missing shots. We can’t let that happen,” DeMar DeRozan said Tuesday, via Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet.

Wednesday brings an opportunity to ease some anxieties, re-build some confidence, and lock up the seed they’ve played so hard for all season. The Celtics just took one from Toronto on Saturday, and responding with a victory here would even the season series (the Raptors own the secondary tiebreakers for seeding purposes) and show they’re able to steer out of a mini-skid and make some key adjustments after Boston and Cleveland (and Oklahoma City, and others before that) began poking a few holes.

The game tips off at 8 p.m. on TSN 4/5 and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Michael Pina of Vice Sports, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: The one seed could essentially be on the line here. Who do you think that matters more to right now? Boston closing the season hot is obviously a nice confidence boost, and there’s no telling who either 1-2 may draw in the 7-8 slots right now. Toronto looks (looked?) poised for a deeper run where that could come into play. I guess the better question is: Do you see it mattering at all, since the only way Toronto and Boston flipping has a tangible impact is if they meet in the Eastern Conference Finals?

Michael Pina: The top seed has obvious advantages, but who whichever team gets to play in the first round isn’t nearly as big a deal as that second-round opponent. Avoiding Cleveland in Round 2 is critical. It’s probable the top seed will get to avoid Cleveland and Toronto/Boston until the conference finals, but to he honest I think the Raptors and Celtics care more about holding off LeBron for as long as possible than getting the one seed.

Blake Murphy: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier have all been capably stepping into larger roles with the Celtics so thinned out. Which do you think is the biggest key to Boston being able to make noise in the playoffs? I’d guess the answer is Rozier if Kyrie Irving is out and Tatum if Irving’s back (even though Brown is the guy I like the most of all three), but you’d have a much better sense here.

Michael Pina: In the first round that answer is probably Terry Rozier, who seems to get 6-8 easy/crucial points every game for a team that struggles to generate efficient offense, but beyond that (assuming Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving return) Jayson Tatum’s scoring in second units will be critical.

Blake Murphy: Toronto has done well to take the ball out of Al Horford’s hands in the last two meetings. Horford is going to score somehow, of course, but Serge Ibaka picking him up at halfcourt (or even further) has limited the amount Boston can initiate through Horford, especially with Irving sidelined. That turned out a lot better earlier in the year than it did Saturday. Is it a strategy you’d expect a playoff opponent to employ, at least in the minutes Horford doesn’t share the floor with Irving? Could Stevens be holding off on using his counters (he flashed a few Saturday but was mostly conservative with having Horford bring the ball up the floor or catch it in the backcourt)?

Michael Pina: If Toronto wants to swarm Horford off the ball, Boston will gladly stash him on the perimeter and play 4-on-4 with Ibaka away from the rim.

Blake Murphy: Where do you land in the Stevens-vs-Casey Coach of the Year debate that bubbled up before the last meeting? Are those your top two, or does Terry Stotts (or any number of other good candidates) factor in and shift Stevens/Casey further down the hypothetical ballot?

Michael Pina: Casey has had a fantastic season for a team that’s consistently been one of the best in the league, and deserves infinite commendation for lowering responsibilities in his two best players and trusting his bench as much as he has. Stevens is my coach of the year because he’s dealt with far more health-related adversity coaching an even younger team than Toronto. The fact that Boston is even in position to finish with the conference’s best record is a small miracle.

Blake Murphy: Boston went jumbo-package against the Raptors’ bench on Saturday, playing Semi Ojeleye at the two for the first time all year (unless you want to count him as the SG when he plays with Tatum, which I do not, since we also got some Point Tatum in that one). I know the injury report has necessitated playing bigger, anyway, but do you think Stevens is maybe on to something with how Boston’s been able to slow teams down and play a more physical game with these bigger groups? Marcus Morris-Horford-Greg Monroe is a lot of size and skill together, especially when it’s part of Horford-and-bench units playing against a lot of subs.

Michael Pina: Stevens definitely doesn’t want to play this big, but injuries have forced his hand. With Kadeem Allen starting at the point against Milwaukee on Tuesday night, Boston rolled with lineups that pit Greg Monroe, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Al Horford, and Jaylen Brown at the same time. These humongous units can defend (zone!) and rebound, but slowing tempo and limiting the number of possessions when they’re on the floor is where they really show their usefulness.

Raptors updates
The Raptors are coming off of a lot of rest days, but a travel back-to-back is never going to be easy on the body. At the very least, only one Raptor played 30 minutes against Cleveland (DeMar DeRozan, 33), so nobody will be obscenely overworked here. If there was thought about rest – the Raptors are in the midst of another five-in-seven stretch – the fact that this game is on national TV in the U.S. and has big one-seed stakes probably puts the idea to, uh, rest. No individual player should have that as an excuse, anyway, though it will be interesting to see how Kyle Lowry looks given his travel schedule the last few days and his performance on Tuesday.

It will also be interesting to see what the rotation looks like. It’s probably best to expect the usual 10-man approach, but there are two qualifying factors. The first is that Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira offered a spark late against the Cavaliers. It probably shouldn’t change anything. Dwane Casey may want to reward that late boost with an early call to one or both if the Raptors are stagnant again early. The other is that the Celtics deployed a very large lineup against the Raptors’ bench on Saturday, and it proved very effective. Whether the all-bench look has a quick hook, OG Anunoby sees more time with the bench, they try a dual-center look with Pascal Siakam at the three, or whatever, it’s worth keeping an eye on how the Raptors adjust if the bench struggles again.

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, , Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller

Celtics updates
Boston could be just as shorthanded here as they were on Saturday, when it didn’t matter much as they handed the Raptors one of their worst losses of the season. Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, and Gordon Hayward all remain out, while the point guard rotation is in even greater peril – Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin both sat last night. Rozier is dealing with an ankle issue, said he was going to play, and was at one point listed as probable, then ultimately sat. That might point to him being close and likely to play here, though there is no official injury report yet. Shane Larkin, meanwhile, didn’t travel with the team to Milwaukee due to illness and would seem unlikely here, but the team didn’t rule out Larkin meeting them in Toronto.

Not only are the Celtics thinned out, they, too, are on the second night of a travel back-to-back. They lost a tight one in Milwaukee on Tuesday, tasking Jaylen Brown and Al Horford with 36 minutes each and Greg Monroe and Jayson Tatum with 33 each. That’s become somewhat necessary as they play super-sized with so many backcourt players out, and while ball-hawk Kadeem Allen started at point guard against the Bucks, Brown, Tatum, and Horford all took on large initiating roles. Surprisingly, it was on defense where the size hurt – Boston scored 107.7 points per-100 possessions and surrendered 111.9, the former a hair above their season-long mark and the latter standing as a bad game by their lofty defensive standards. Then again, a similarly large Celtics approach held the Raptors to a tidier 103.5 offensive rating on Saturday.

PG: (Terry Rozier), (Shane Larkin), 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: Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, Gordon Hayward
TBD: Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin
Maine: None

The line
The Raptors are 7.5-point favorites with a 208.5 over-under. Something tells me that line will raise some eyebrows. It’s the second night of a back-to-back for both, the Raptors have an edge being at home and without injury, and at some point, the Raptors should start playing like the Raptors. Right? Right.

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