Pre-Game

Gameday: Celtics @ Raptors, Feb. 26

Expect a heavy load.

The Toronto Raptors host the Boston Celtics for the final game of their season series with the bad guys having taken two of three thus far. The home team has won every contest, with the victor pulling away late to seal each game including one overtime battle in Boston.

As such, the Celtics have outscored the Raptors 48-32 in 16 clutch minutes (final five minutes of games within five points or fewer), per NBA.com. Over those 16 minutes, Boston shot an obscene 14-of-17 from two, 4-of-5 from three-point range, and 8-for-9 from the free-throw line. Who’s doing the damage? Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have been unstoppable in crunch time, shooting a combined 10-for-13 from inside the arc including 3-of-4 from three and only turning the ball over twice. Horford, in fact, has made all five of his clutch shots.

“He’s (Horford) really tough to defend, that combination,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after practice Monday. “There’s a lot of volume there if you look at the numbers of how many times Irving and Horford play screen and roll, the numbers are way up there. Most importantly, in the crunch time or clutch time or need-bucket time in the course of the game, that’s where they’re going. You better have Plan A, B, C, D, E … F also in there.”

Toronto, meanwhile, has shot 8-of-19 from two and 4-of-10 from three-point range in crunch time, the offense often going stagnant with the ball in the hands of Kawhi Leonard. The 27-year-old is the only Raptor to get to the free-throw line in this sample, but filtering for the final four minutes instead of five, Leonard is just 2-for-8 from the field in 12 minutes. His numbers over the course of the entire game make for much better reading, the three-time All-Star is averaging 31.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, three assists and 2.7 steals while making 93.5 percent of his 10.3 free-throw attempts. He has struggled from the outside, though, making just four of his 16 three-point attempts.

While Leonard has thrived overall, the Celtics green has brought out the worst in Pascal Siakam, as he has managed just 8.7 points on 47.8 percent shooting over the three games. It’s encouraging that he’s averaged 4.3 assists, but foul trouble has also kept him from being at his best. His clutch sample illustrates the Raptors’ struggles in moving the ball, as he’s managed just one field goal attempt and scored zero points in 11 minutes.

Of course, the dynamic of what the Raptors can go to has changed over the past few weeks, with Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin and, most recently, Jodie Meeks showing they can spice up the offense. While it’s more than likely Meeks won’t figure into crunch time minutes, Gasol brings a terrific sense of read-and-react to the offense that can help this team break free in the half court while Lin is still growing into his role as a scorer off the ball and an initiator of the offense on it. An underrated aspect in all this might be Siakam, who has improved by leaps and bounds since their last Jan. 16 clash. Gasol brings a different dynamic in defending Horford, and it will be interesting to see how Nurse schemes to have him defend the pick-and-pop between Irving and Horford when given the opportunity.

The Celtics aren’t just about their starting point guard and center, though. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward have all had their moments against the Raptors while Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier have been key contributors in their roles as well. For all their reported chemistry issues as well as the players’ own comments about how it’s been a struggle to get everyone on the same page this season, they remain a significant threat in the Eastern Conference and still very much have the ceiling of a championship contender.

“I just think that, from my standpoint, we know they’re very good, we know they’re very deep, we know they’re very well coached,” head coach Nick Nurse said after practice Monday. “I think they’re as dangerous as anybody here.”

GAME INFO

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT.
TV: Sportsnet ONE. Radio: Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

RAPTORS UPDATES

Fred VanVleet continues to remain out as he recovers from surgery to repair ligament damage to his left thumb. Leonard is expected to return after missing his 17th game of the season against the Magic on Sunday. Gasol received his first start against Orlando and it remains to be seen if he will continue in that role against the Celtics. For now, I have him slotted as the starting center and will update when there is one.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin
SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw, Jodie Meeks
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher
OUT: Fred VanVleet

CELTICS UPDATES

Aron Baynes is expected to still miss a couple more weeks due to a left foot contusion. Everyone else appears to have the green light.

PG: Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, Brad Wanamaker
SG: Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, RJ Hunter
SF: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown
PF: Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele
C: Al Horford, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams
OUT: Aron Baynes

THE LINE

The Raptors are four-point favorites and the over/under is set at 226 points.

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