Coming off a pair of tough losses and with health on the wings suddenly an issue for the Raptors, they take a trip to Boston Friday night to play the Celtics, in a matchup that will probably have be closely watched between the two Eastern Conference heavyweights. The two teams met a month ago in the second game of the season, with the Raptors pulling away late in the fourth quarter thanks in large part to Kawhi Leonard taking over in order to get the win.
With Norman Powell already out with a partially dislocated shoulder, the Raptors were also missing CJ Miles against the Pistons and had Danny Green leave the game with back soreness, an injury that is currently listed as day-to-day but may cause him to miss some games. This leaves the team with strikingly little depth on the wings, and they’ll probably call on Malachi Richardson to fill some of those minutes, but they’ll also need other guys on the roster to step up and help fill in the gaps, especially if Green misses time, as he’s been one of the best players on the team thus far this season.
The game tips off at 7PM EST on ESPN and Sportsnet One, and should be a fun matchup and interesting barometer for both squads, and it’ll be interesting to see how Nick Nurse handles minutes with another game the next night in Chicago against the Bulls.
While the Raptors have their first two-game losing streak of the season currently, the Celtics also enter having struggled a little in recent games, losers of four of their last six. In order to preview the matchup, I got some help from Max Carlin of Fansided’s The Step Back blog and Hoops Habit, who is also a Celtics fan as well as a writer, to help break down the two teams coming into this game:
Anthony: Coming into this game, the Celtics have been struggling a little of late, having lost (4/5) of their last 6. What’s your level of concern for them at this point in the season?
Max: I guess I’ll answer this through two prisms. In terms of the Celtics eventually hitting the ceiling I believed they had a month ago, I’m not concerned at all. Kyrie Irving is back to normal. His shot’s returned, his rim attempts and other athletic indicators suggest a player who’s recaptured the burst that was clearly absent early in the year. And while his struggles navigating screens and showing consistent effort persist, Irving’s actually impacting the game defensively off-ball, boasting elite block and steal rates (89th and 94th) percentiles respectively among combo guards) for the first time in his career. Jayson Tatum, after a maddening start to the season, thankfully seems to realize he’s more Otto Porter than Kobe Bryant right now. Gordon Hayward’s lateral explosion has steadily improved, and he’s flashing as the initiator who can elevate the offense above Irving’s individual brilliance. Jaylen Brown and Al Horford finally started hitting shots in Wednesday’s win over the Bulls. Eventually, this team is going to get where we thought it could. Where I am concerned is the hole they’ve already dug themselves. 3.5 games back in mid-November of a Raptors team that, barring recurrence of Kawhi’s mystery ailment, isn’t slowing down, is far from ideal. Given how important homecourt has been to the Celtics in recent postseason runs, they can’t really afford to take their time coalescing. The team is going to be okay, but eventually might not be soon enough.
Anthony: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown came into the season with big expectations, and haven’t managed those quite as well as expected. Have your expectations for them this season changed at all in the first month?
Max: Offensively, the Jayson Tatum of the first ten or eleven games of the season resembled, to disturbing degree, the player many hated at Duke. He operated primarily in isolation and probably yelled “Kobe” each time he hoisted outrageous contested mid-ranger. Over the last three games, Tatum’s 3-point attempt rate has spiked (he’s taking nearly half his shots from deep). He’s getting to the rim, showcasing the length and handle that make him a truly special 6’9” marksman. Tatum hasn’t taken the leap to superstar status yet, but an approach adjustment was all he needed to excise the early-season demons. He’s shown some growth as a playmaker, displaying an understanding of how to leverage his pull as a scorer into opportunities for other. He’s not there yet, but I’m still confident in Tatum as a superstar long-term.
As for Brown, it seems an eternity ago that some crowned him a Kawhi facsimile while arguing against shipping the third-year wing to San Antonio. Brown, this year, looks…the same. He’s taking roughly the same shots he did last year—they’re just not going in. At some point, they will, and everything will be fine. But Brown doesn’t look any better. On a few occasions, he’s seen the defense shift to obstruct his path to the rim, understood what the rotation’s meant, and found an open shooter—he’s starting to see basketball better. Nonetheless, nothing’s radically changed the equation for Brown. He still looks like a complementary player, which is fine, because he’s a great complementary player, but if you were hoping for something more, you’re probably disappointed right now.
Anthony: The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week is Pascal Siakam. He’s been a matchup problem for teams in recent games, how do the Celtics gameplan for his unique skillset?
Max: Without a doubt, Siakam’s most dangerous in transition, where his ball-handling and athleticism terrorize opponents. The Celtics have limited transition better than any team in the league, ceding transition opportunities on just 12.8 percent of possessions. Structurally, the Celtics are well-suited to limit Siakam. In the halfcourt, the Celtics are disciplined and intelligent—corralling Siakam there should not be an issue. Claiming Siakam will be a non-factor on Friday would be hyperbolic, but the Celtics should be able to survive his relentless energy and burgeoning skills.
Anthony: The marquee matchup between these teams probably remains at point guard. Kyle Lowry started the season on fire, but has had rougher games of late, while Kyrie has seemed to find his form. How do you view that matchup?
Max: The matchup between Irving and Lowry seems likely to underwhelm. It’s not that I question either player’s ability or impact, but the idea of them going back and forth trading blows probably represents a departure from reality. Irving will be hidden off-ball on defense, presumably on Danny Green. To start, I’d assume Brown will cover Lowry, which could be problematic given some of Brown’s struggles tracking shooters off-ball and Lowry’s elite ability as an off-ball point. Marcus Smart will likely factor in heavily to Boston’s attempts to contain Lowry, and Smart’s combination of strength, intelligence, and effort should serve him well on the Raptors’ offensive engine. On the other end, Irving is a singular offensive talent; containing him is oxymoronic. While you’re not going to limit Irving himself, his impact can be constrained. This season, Irving’s fit into the ideal of a capital “P” point guard better than ever before. His decision-making has been adequate, his impact on team basketball meaningfully increased. Yet, competent defense that takes away easier reads could limit that impact. If Lowry’s hard-nosed defense removes the low-hanging fruit lesser defenses yield, Irving’s team impact could certainly be limited. Irving is going to produce, but limiting his impact will be key to stalling the Celtics’ offense.
Anthony: Marcus Morris has somewhat slid under the radar with just how hot he’s been to start this season, and he poses a matchup problem for benches. How have the Celtics been opening up his game and helping him be so dominant this year?
Max: Marcus Morris has experienced an extremely welcome usage shift this year. Thus far, Morris has been much more of a 3&D wing than the high-volume self-creator he was last.
This year, spot ups have comprised 32.4 percent of Morris’ possessions (up from 22.7 percent last year), per Synergy, and 68 percent of Morris’ baskets have been assisted (up from 62 percent last season). Morris’ role this season, with plenty of creation throughout the roster, is far better suited to his skills. Of course, Morris has also benefited from unsustainably good shooting (48 percent from 3 and 70 percent at the rim). While Morris’ shooting percentages will normalize, he’ll continue to enjoy an optimized role on a team that is no longer asking too much of him.