Previewing the Raptors-Celtics Playoff Series

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Jan 16, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives the ball against Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) in the second quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors have existed for 25 years, which is a long time not to play a single game that matters against a mortal enemy. Yes, this series in 2020 played in a bubble in Orlando during a pandemic will be the first time the Raptors face the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. After sweeping the Brooklyn Nets, the Raptors will face a Celtics team who also swept their first-round opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers. Maybe, though, the mortal enemy comment isn’t true yet. There’s no love lost between fan bases, but the actual teams have never really had a chance to form a rivalry. That’s reality when you never get a chance to play in the playoffs. Hopefully by the time this series is over, all the necessary ingredients for a real playoff rivalry will have been mixed into the pot.

Injuries

The Raptors seemed to be coming into this series fairly healthy. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was on the injury report with some swelling in his knee, but he was day-to-day and has since returned to action. In game four, however, Kyle Lowry seemed to turn his left ankle, and he left the building for an MRI on his left arch. The Raptors organization has since said that he has a sprained left ankle, though they have not elaborated on severity. It’s tough to know whether Lowry will play, and if so, whether he’ll be affected, and to what extent. I’ll bake this into a few of my sections, but it’s hard to get a read on. And the Raptors probably won’t be telling us much. Otherwise, Oshae Brissett (knee) and Pat McCaw (knee) are both out indefinitely and haven’t played in the bubble. McCaw is no longer in Orlando.

For the Celtics, Gordon Hayward is out indefinitely with a grade three ankle sprain. He has left the bubble and will return when he’s close to playing. Such ankle sprains are supposed to take at least a month to heal, and Hayward suffered the sprain on August 18, which means he will almost certainly not return to play during the series, which has a tentative game seven scheduled only three weeks after Hayward’s injury. That’s a big loss and will affect practically every aspect of this series preview; Hayward is fantastic, and the Celtics are thin without him.

General Numbers

As always, this stuff will show up throughout the preview, so let’s get it out of the way early. Some general stuff about the two teams.

Let’s start by saying we should take Toronto’s playoff numbers with a grain of salt. Yes, the Raptors were beyond fantastic, obliterating the Nets. But the Nets did not field a playoff-caliber roster, particularly considering Joe Harris left midway through the series. Toronto’s incredible point production, especially, is not going to carry over now that the Raps are facing real playoff opponents.

That being said, the general stats show that Boston is every bit a match for Toronto. Despite having a worse overall record from the regular season, the Celtics sported a better net rating. They had a slightly better offense, which they managed with a similar level of variety as Toronto; both Boston and Toronto were accurate from behind the arc, inside the arc, and from the free throw line. Note that Toronto did manage a higher true shooting percentage than Boston in the regular season, largely because the Raptors were a better three-point shooting team. The Celtics had more paint threats, though, chief among them Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Get used to hearing their names a lot in this preview.

There are other similarities between the two teams. Neither Boston nor Toronto turns the ball over much. The Celtics are a slightly better rebounding team than Toronto, though it’s close enough that Toronto could easily win the rebounding battle from game to game. Gasol and Ibaka can both put up massive rebounding games, so it’s not like Toronto is without options there. The Celtics struggled mightily to keep Joel Embiid and the gigantic Philadelphia 76ers off the glass in round one, though Boston did sweep the series anyway, so Toronto shouldn’t count on hitting the offensive glass as a realistic winning strategy.

Both teams have deadly transition attacks, though Toronto’s was better and more frequent. Perhaps more important to Boston’s success this series is not their own transition offense, but rather their transition defense. They sported the 17th-ranked transition defense in the league, in terms of fast-break points allowed per game. However, as we’ll see in the next section, Boston’s transition defense in games specifically against Toronto was marvelous. Which transition defense Boston brings to the playoff party will be an important factor in determining the series.

Really, these are two incredibly similar teams, when it comes to generalized stats. Let’s dig deeper.

Season Series Numbers

This is where the preview takes a negative turn for the Raptors. The Celtics walloped the Raptors in the season series. To be fair, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol missed two games each, so Toronto has some reasonable excuses. Yet the Celtics still trounced Toronto — the only loss the Raptors have received since the Orlando bubble began — in the final regular season game, when both teams were fully healthy. That being said, Toronto’s leading scorer in that game was Fred VanVleet with a majestic total of 13 points. So, it’s not like the Raptors took that one too seriously. In fact, speaking with players after the game, none of them seemed particularly upset at all. The Raptors had little to play for, and in all likelihood they kept their playoff stuff under wraps. Still, the season series happened, so let’s get to it.

To compound the issue for Toronto, they actually shot fairly well in the season series, at least from deep. To have a better true shooting percentage than the Celtics and still lose the series is a tough pill to swallow. But averaging 20.0 turnovers a game, and letting the Celtics snatch nearly a third of their own misses, is damning. To that point: the Raptors attempted only 331 field goals while the Celtics fired up 375 shots in the four games. That wide margin of 44 shots, or 11.0 extra shot attempts per game, was certainly the difference between a 3-1 series win for Boston and a much more manageable result for Toronto.

To break things down further, a variety of Toronto’s starters performed below average in those specific possession-winning areas. Lowry (4.5 turnovers per game against the Celtics), Siakam (3.5), VanVleet (3.0), and Anunoby (2.3) all committed turnovers well above their season averages. And Siakam (4.0 defensive rebounds per game) and Lowry (3.3) were both well below their season averages for defensive rebounds, too. Their defensive rebounding was good-not-great against the Brooklyn Nets, and the Nets only fielded one center for the entire series, so it’s an open question whether the Raptors have solved their rebounding woes or not. All told, Toronto has to close the possession gap to have a chance in this series. If the Celtics have 11 extra shooting chances per game, it’ll be a short series, and not in a good way for the Raptors. That being said, turnovers and rebounding are mostly scheme and execution issues, and Toronto’s playoff focus has been wonderful. It’s hard to see them making those same careless mistakes in the playoffs that they made in the regular season.

Another, deeper point of importance is Toronto’s (in)ability to score against Boston. We’ll get into the nuance in much more detail in the matchup section, but for now, note that Toronto’s offensive rating against Boston, 102.9, was much lower than their season-long offensive rating of 110.8. Part of that is that the Raptors could not get their transition attack going. Two of Toronto’s eight lowest-scoring games, in terms of points on the fast-break, both with 11, came against Boston. (And in the other two games, Toronto scored 12 points and 13 points in transition, so it’ was a consistent and unsolved problem in all four games.) The Celtics get back like fiends, and they have the length to contest pretty well anything even when they’re numerically disadvantaged. Going through the film, almost none of Toronto’s transition buckets were uncontested. The Celtics are wise to Toronto’s propensity to push after misses or makes, and they did a great job contesting Lowry and VanVleet’s pull up jumpers in transition. For Toronto to create transition buckets, they’ll have to work hard, leaking out, and intentionally hit ahead. Even then, they won’t create certain scores but instead perhaps raise their expected points per possession from just under 1.0 to just over 1.0. That’s how impressive Boston’s transition defense is. More likely is that Toronto punts transition attempts unless they are obvious, cleans the glass with gusto, and plays low-tempo offense. Both teams like to play slow in the half-court, once transition opportunities are dead, so that wouldn’t be a disadvantage for either team, though Toronto would hurt to see fast-break buckets go.

It wasn’t just losing the transition points that hurt Toronto.

Of course, part of Toronto’s poor offensive showing against Boston was a result of committing so many turnovers, throwing away 20 chances to score per game. But several Raptors also struggled to score. VanVleet shot 33.8 percent from the field. He struggled especially around the rim, shooting 37.5 percent within 10 feet of the rim in the four games. Now that he’s healthy, that should improve; his finishing at the rim in Orlando has been closer to expected, as he’s shot 26-of-53, good for 49.1 percent from within 10 feet. But if against Boston he can’t create efficient offense for himself when he hits the paint, and thus is unable to draw the defense with his many drives, then Toronto’s offense will be in trouble. VanVleet was, by the way, 18th in the league in drives per game this season, averaging 14.3. He shot a lowly 37.1 percent from the field on them, second-lowest among the 47 players who averaged 10 or more drives a game. He shot an even worse 27.3 percent on his 16.5 drives per in the four games against Boston. He also passed out of 56.7 percent of those drives, highest among players who averaged 10 or more drives per game. All that to say: if Boston trusts one helper to stymie VanVleet and keeps its defensive structure intact, and VanVleet can neither score efficiently nor collapse the defense, the Raptors will lack an important piece of its offensive puzzle.

Among the other players who struggled to score against Boston, Powell averaged 9.0 points while hitting 16.7 percent from deep and Gasol scored 3.5 points per game without hitting a single three. Those three in particular struggled to score, but reviewing the tape, it wasn’t anything in particular that Boston did. Those three really just had rough shooting nights. VanVleet couldn’t score from within the arc, but Powell and Gasol simply missed extremely makeable shots. That’s not such an important predictive factor. Put another way, if Powell and Gasol, two of Toronto’s most important shooting threats, combine to hit 1-of-13 from deep, as they did in the season series, then the Raptors will be in trouble for simple and obvious reasons.

Starter Matchups

Toronto:

PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Fred VanVleet
SF: OG Anunoby
PF: Pascal Siakam
C:  Marc Gasol

Boston:

PG: Kemba Walker
SG: Marcus Smart
SF: Jaylen Brown
PF: Jayson Tatum
C:  Daniel Theis

Both teams had similar net ratings with all five starters playing: 9.5 for Toronto and 8.1 for Boston. Perhaps the most obvious and important takeaway from that is that both teams have similarly incredible starting lineups. Whichever wins their minutes — as often starting groups will play up to 20 minutes a game together, so a huge chunk of full games — has a big advantage. And in the season series, Toronto’s regular starting five had a net rating of -17.2 in 34 minutes (remember, all five were only available in two games), while Boston’s starting five that’ll appear (with Smart in for Hayward) in this series didn’t play together. That group also had a net rating of -1.1 against Philadelphia, so perhaps Toronto can take advantage there. This is an important point; as good as Boston’s starters have been, and as dominant as they have been against Toronto, that was all with Hayward. The Celtics have not been nearly as great without Hayward on the floor. Boston’s on-off net rating sank by 5.1 points without him in the playoffs, and 4.0 points in the regular season.

Hayward was an integral shooter, playmaker, and initiator for Boston, and the Celtics simply don’t have anyone who can replicate those skills.  He was putting together a massive season averaging 17.5 points per game (on a ridiculous 50-38-86 shooting split) with 4.1 assists. Smart is a lightning bolt, and he’s a much more destructive defender, but he can’t do what Hayward does. Toronto’s defense will have an easier job without Hayward wreaking havoc on rotations. Boston also doesn’t have another high-level scorer to whom the team can shift more usage; their stars already carry heavy loads. Perhaps Jaylen Brown gets more reps.

This new Boston starting group had a net rating of 4.6 in the regular season. In much smaller minutes, the Celtics recorded better net ratings with either Semi Ojeleye in for Smart (14.3) or Enes Kanter for Theis (15.5). So perhaps the Celtics mix up the starting group at some point in the series if they struggle. If they do, Ojeleye to simplify the rotations and juice the bench seems like a fairly good bet. Regardless, let’s deal with the starting lineups that will open the series, for now.

Of my projected starters, none of the Celtics missed a single game, while Gasol and Siakam missed two apiece. That affects some of the numbers. But without further ado, the matchup numbers.

(First, some caveats with these numbers, taken from nba dot com. Matchup data is always tricky, especially considering the defender on shot attempts is defined by the data creator as which defender was closest to the shot when it occurred, not which defender started on the offensive player, or who was guarding him the longest. So that’s a problem, but I decided to include the field goal attempts – makes because it is available. But also because it does a fairly good job of showing which players had good season series against Brooklyn on the whole, even if makes against individual defenders are murkier. So be careful drawing too many conclusions out of that part of the data set. On the plus side, the number of possessions against is pretty accurate, and that’s the number I use most often in determining who guarded whom and how often.)

Some notes on the data there:

  • Who is going to guard Lowry? In the regular season, Tatum took Lowry, but Hayward was also playing, and he took Anunoby. With Smart replacing Hayward, the Celtics will probably want their best on-ball defender more involved than taking Toronto’s least-involved offensive player. I expect Tatum to remain on Lowry, at least initially, to use all that infinite length to bother Toronto’s preferred initiator. With Lowry’s mobility likely hampered, at least somewhat, by his ankle sprain, the Raptors probably won’t want to attack this matchup too much. Lowry could shift into more of a jump-shooting role and let VanVleet and Siakam initiate, or even Gasol on the high block. But if Lowry gets Tatum into foul trouble, or Toronto’s offensive sets give some problems to Boston’s matchups, Tatum will switch away, and Boston will unleash Smart on Lowry.
  • Smart, I expect, will start instead on VanVleet, with Kemba Walker shifting to Anunoby. VanVleet had trouble scoring against Walker in the regular season, but that shouldn’t be too much of an issue in the playoffs if Walker remains on VanVleet. VanVleet has been Toronto best player through the first round, and Walker is not known as a great defender. Walker shouldn’t be able to challenge VanVleet’s pull-up jumper, and if Walker still guards VanVleet, the Raptors will use VanVleet as a screener for Siakam quite often to involve Walker in the play. On the other hand, Smart should be able to take away as much of VanVleet’s offense as a single defender could do. If VanVleet can still give Smart buckets, that’s a huge problem for Boston. Vice versa, if Smart takes VanVleet out of the series, or limits him, that will make Toronto’s offense much more stagnant. There are counters, of course, but expect the VanVleet-Smart matchup, if it occurs, to be one of the most important hinges, at least early on, for the series.
    • If Walker does shift to Anunoby, how much will Toronto go out of its way to attack the smaller guard in the post? Walker tries, but he’s small and doesn’t have the defensive strengths of some small guards who are still good defenders, like VanVleet. Walker is the only real target in the series, so expect Toronto to test him. If Anunoby can post Walker and create good looks, Toronto should return to that well plenty. But Boston digs very aggressively into the post, and Anunoby should face swarming hands and occasional double teams. How does he respond? If with good, smart play, Toronto will create great shots. But turnovers will kill the Raptors. Toronto has to expose Walker on the defensive end, no matter whom he guards. If Anunoby can’t beat him in the post, then Toronto will involve Anunoby as a screener, either on-ball or off. Expect the series to be a continual dance of trying to get Walker involved in more and more on-ball defensive stuff. The more Walker has to guard Siakam, the better for Toronto.
  • Jaylen Brown limited Siakam in the regular season series. He’s extremely strong and long and can bother Siakam in the post or on face-ups. Siakam shot poorly against him. Fortunately for Toronto, Boston switches a lot on the defensive end. If Toronto puts even the smallest bit of effort into screening actions, the Raptors can force Smart, Tatum, or even Theis to switch onto Siakam. Can Siakam score efficiently in isolation against any of them? The Celtics are going to switch with aplomb, but they are probably going to let Siakam prove himself before they double at every touch. Siakam has to establish himself early in the series for Toronto to create great offensive looks in the half-court running the offense through Siakam.
    • More about the Brown matchup: Siakam should be able to take him in the post, but Brown has such a strong lower body that Siakam hasn’t always been able to move him back and create better shots. Brown is so shifty on defense, he is never really lost. When Siakam has chosen to spin, even at top speed, Brown has always met him on the other side. Jab steps and pump fakes, though, have created space more often against Brown, so Siakam should have that pull-back jumper whenever he wants. Making it will give him tons of room to operate. Too often, however, Siakam has settled for spinning, fading hooks. He’s attempted a lot of 10+ foot floaters, which he can make, don’t get me wrong, but are not the payload to easy money. He’s also missed a lot of easy layups against Brown, which is hard to say is because of Brown’s defense, so it’s not like Siakam has had a problem always creating good looks.
      • Boston has not sent a lot of help to Brown. Like, any at all. Some of Siakam’s buckets against Brown in the regular season saw Siakam dribble for three or four seconds, shifting Brown back, before he launched the shot, and not a single helper arrived in all that time. Still, Siakam hasn’t scored well against Brown overall despite the lack of help. If that changes, it will open up a lot of space for Toronto’s other scorers who struggled against Boston, particularly VanVleet and Powell. Siakam will need to establish himself early as able to beat single coverage. It’s reasonable to think he will, as Siakam has so much length and strength that even if Brown does a good job, Siakam should still be able to create easy looks for himself when he has an eternity alone. It’s how Siakam responds when double coverages are sent his way that will be more indicative. If Siakam makes those quick hits and creates open jumpers with hockey assists, that’s when Boston will be in trouble.
    • Tatum has given Siakam less trouble, defensively. Tatum gives way more easily, has less burst side-to-side on the defensive end, and Boston is a little more willing to send help when Tatum is guarding Siakam. In those cases, Siakam has to make immediate moves to score or draw two and hit the open man. Speed of decision-making will be vital because Boston closes so quickly, those minute advantages that Siakam creates will be lost of he hesitates.
    • Toronto has tried to have VanVleet screen for Siakam here and there. That’s a good look, because it tried to force Walker to switch with Brown and get the much smaller guard on Siakam. Boston didn’t bit,e and Walker mostly stayed away from the Siakam matchup. But in those moments, VanVleet was open when he dashed out of those screens. Siakam didn’t hit him. You have to think those details will be part of the film work in preparation for the series, and when VanVleet, Lowry, or even Anunoby — whomever Walker is guarding — screens for Siakam, Siakam will know that his teammates will have open catch-and-shoot jumpers on the pop. If Boston gives up too many looks there, the Celtics would have to move to zone, not have a point guard other than Smart on the floor, or concede the switch. It’s hard to know which option is best, but the four-one pick-and-roll for Toronto could cause serious damage to Boston’s defensive integrity. Expect to see lots of Siakam handling in the pick-and-roll this series.
  • Theis is not very big for a center, standing only six-foot-eight. Gasol is a proper seven-footer, and he has shown some throwback tendencies to bruising in the post in Orlando. If all else fails, letting Gasol attack Theis could be a deep well of offense. Gasol should be able to create solid stuff for himself, and if Boston sends extra defenders, then it would unleash Gasol’s best offensive skill, his passing. Gasol should get plenty of touches against Theis, especially early in games, just to see if good things happen.

Now the same data with Boston on offense and Toronto defending.

Some notes.

  • The Walker matchup will be fascinating. Walker is an absolute monster, hitting 36.5 percent of his pull-up triples in the regular season and 47.0 percent of his pull-up twos. Walker is empowered to pull from practically anywhere, particularly against a drop defense. Walker, perhaps more than any single other Boston player in the Philadelphia series, was responsible for the firing of Brett Brown. Philly asked him to shoot, and he torched them. Toronto doesn’t want to switch centers onto guards, so Walker will have a sliver of space during every on-ball screen in which he can fire when his defender is behind him (assuming Toronto runs its guards over top of the screens, which is a fairly safe bet). Walker had four solid games in the regular season against Toronto, and he actually averaged the most shot attempts on the team. The Raptors are happy to let Walker shoot more than Tatum, but Walker is certainly no slouch. His pull-up shooting will be another important hinge upon which the outcome of the series will swing.
    • All that being said, the Raptors will likely play VanVleet against Walker from jump street. VanVleet is one of the best defensive guards in the league, and Walker will have to work for everything. VanVleet won’t be fooled by the dribbling, and he’s strong enough to bother or even strip Walker at times. Furthermore, Walker isn’t big enough to shoot over VanVleet, which is about the latter’s only defensive weakness. But can VanVleet bother Walker’s pull-up jumper with his rear-view contests? If not, and Walker catches fire, then the Raptors will need to put VanVleet elsewhere and use Anunoby or even Siakam to take away Walker’s pull-up.
    • If VanVleet bothers Walker enough, Boston could run VanVleet through the gamut of screens to free Walker. That shouldn’t bother Toronto either. It would open a few cracks for shooters elsewhere, but the Raptors do a good job of controlling which opponents actually end up with open shots. Theis has a slow release, and even though he shoots a solid enough percentage from deep (33.3 percent on the year, 50.0 percent against Toronto in the season series), the Raptors will be happy to let its frantic rotations bother Theis if it means Walker doesn’t get free around screens. The same for Smart. The Raptors will let both gun away from deep against closing defenders; that math will tilt in Toronto’s favour more often than not.
  • Toronto used Lowry as Tatum’s primary defender during the season series. It didn’t work fantastically, as Tatum scored well against Lowry and inefficiently against anyone else. Lowry is a wonderful post defender, and with his intensity, he could get inside Tatum’s jersey and bother the dribble. Can Lowry do the same on a bum ankle? We’ll see the extent of the injury, but it’s possible that the Raptors don’t want Lowry on Tatum as a result. Even if Lowry’s ankle was fully healthy, I would guess that Anunoby takes the Tatum matchup, if not to start, then shortly thereafter. Tatum is Boston’s tier-one scorer, and Anunoby is Toronto’s best wing stopper. It’s not too complicated, and it simplifies other matchups for Toronto. As elsewhere in this series, though, Toronto will switch a whole lot one through four, so still expect to see Anunoby guarding Tatum after switches if he doesn’t start there, and the same for Lowry.
    • Tatum often seems like he wants to isolate, hit the post, and shoot long turnaround fadeaways over defenders. Tatum is an offensive freak, and he can hit those shots, but he can be goaded into poor looks. Toronto doesn’t have a defender in the starting lineup that it doesn’t trust guarding Tatum in the post. That could be a big advantage for the Raps if Tatum starts putting offensive sets into the mud by trying to post Lowry or Anunoby. Tatum shouldn’t find easy money there.
    • If Anunoby takes Tatum, that leaves Lowry to guard Smart, which is fun because they have such similar defensive games. But Smart has improved dramatically as an initiator and shooter, enough that he has earned Toronto’s respect. The Raptors won’t let him fire away uncontested from deep, and they will close out and force him to put the ball on the floor. That doesn’t mean they’ll treat him like Joe Harris, though. Lowry will have some room to freestyle, of course, into the lane to take charges, but he’ll have to pay attention to Smart.
    • Ultimately, I think Anunoby will end up on Tatum. He is long enough to contest Tatum’s jumper, which is lightning quick and incredible accurate. Tatum shot 40.4 percent on pull-up triples in the regular season, and that jumped to 50.0 percent in the first round, as Philly didn’t have enough wing defenders beyond Matisse Thybulle to bother him. Anunoby can at least make those Tatum looks tough. Tatum does have an incredible first step with a tight handle, so Anunoby will be hard-pressed to stay in front of him, at times. But Toronto has a very strong second line of defense, so Gasol should be able to delay Tatum for long enough in the paint that Anunoby should be able to fight back into those plays. Will Tatum turn to floaters in those cases? That shouldn’t worry Toronto. Tatum will get his points. He’s probably the best pure scorer in the series. But Toronto is well-equipped to make those buckets tough without compromising the defense on everyone else.
      • If worse comes to worst, and Anunoby can’t stay in front of Tatum, and Lowry can’t take away the jumper, then Siakam can always move to Tatum. Siakam is so long and quick that Tatum should have a lot of trouble scoring over him. It wouldn’t be best for Toronto, I think, to have Siakam carry the load on both ends of the floor, but it’s an option for late game or for whenever Tatum gets too hot. Siakam could likely handle him in single coverage; in a vacuum, I think he is Toronto’s best defensive option on Tatum.
  • Siakam, though, should start on Brown. He bothered Brown during the regular season, more than any other Raptor, and he’s long enough to really contest Brown’s jumper, which is great. Siakam led the entire damn league in contested triples in the regular season, and he only contested more when the playoffs started. That will be really important for Toronto in this series. The Raptors want Siakam to be the one closing on shooters, so starting him on Brown — one of Boston’s least frequently used initiators, in the starting lineup — lets Siakam do that. He’s wonderful at digging or helping in the lane, and recovering to shooters to trouble them. Brown shot 38.2 percent from deep this year, so Siakam will need to close fast against him.
  • As in the first round, Gasol is pretty easy to slot into the Theis matchup. Theis is not a good scorer, so Gasol will have space to freestyle and rumble into the lane, helping contest shots and muck up the paint. Theis can shoot, but his release is very slow. Toronto’s magical jungle of arms and close-outs should keep Theis occupied enough that his looks aren’t too clean. Against Kanter, Gasol is an excellent post defender, and his defensive role will be a little different. He should be equally solid. Gasol’s defensive rotations and solidity around the rim will be important for Toronto in this series.

The Bench

This is where the preview takes a particularly rosy turn for Toronto. First let’s project who is in the rotation and who isn’t. The Raptors used a fairly unsurprising rotation in the first round, and expect that to continue into this much more competitive series.

Toronto:

PG: Terence Davis
SG: Matt Thomas
SF: Norman Powell
PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
C:  Serge Ibaka

Honourable mention: Chris Boucher (Unfortunately, as well as Paul Watson Jr. and company have played in the bubble, it’s unlikely they actually make it into the playoff rotation.)

Boston:

PG: Brad Wanamaker
SG: Romeo Langford
SF: Semi Ojeleye
PF: Grant Williams
C:  Enes Kanter

Honourable mention: Robert Williams III. It’s kind of hard to know what Boston is doing with the bench. The team went 11 deep against Philly, and it’s possible that that continues against Toronto. Brad Stevens hasn’t found the idea rotation without Hayward, and it seems like Boston is still toying with whom to play where. So any of the above six could play important factors for Boston, and any of the above six could also be dropped from the rotation entirely.

The Celtics have less talent than the Raptors on the bench. Once again, the Raptors have an edge in the reserves, although that data doesn’t always show up in transitional lineups. Toronto had a better net rating with zero, one, and three starters in the game, while Boston had a better net rating with two or four starters playing. So, mixed there.

The takeaway from this is that Boston does a good job holding up its bench groups by siphoning increased touches to its stars. Boston doesn’t have high-usage initiators coming off the bench like Toronto, but their bench players do a good job of fitting in around the stars. When Walker sat during the regular season, Tatum’s usage skyrocketed from 24.5 percent to 33.1 percent. The opposite was also true; when Tatum sat, Walker’s usage skyrocketed from 24.1 percent to 31.5 percent. Only 14 players this season recorded usage rates over 30 percent, so it’s significant that Boston leaned on its stars so much in transitional lineups.

Before you ask, none of VanVleet, Lowry, or Siakam saw usage rates over 30 percent when one of the others were sitting, so the Raptors do not lean on its stars to such an extent in transition lineups; the Raptors distribute usage similarly no matter who is in the game.

Part of that is because the Raptors have high-usage and efficient scorers coming off the bench. Namely Powell and Ibaka. League-wide, Ibaka had the 10th-highest usage rate among bench players, and Powell was 35th. Both, Powell in particular, were hyper-efficient scorers; Powell’s 126.9 points per 100 shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass, was 94th percentile for his position.

The Celtics don’t have any guys like that coming off the bench. Kanter is closest, as he’s above-average both in usage and efficiency, but Kanter can’t create his own shot like Powell or Ibaka. He also doesn’t have range on his jumper. Finally, he can be made into a target defensively, as he’s only able to play drop defense from the center spot. The Raptors should run him through a gamut of pick-and-rolls to create pull-up jumpers for Lowry, VanVleet, and Powell whenever Kanter is in the game.

The beauty of Toronto’s bench is that ever player remains a defensive positive. The Celtics have a similar vibe, Kanter excluded, but no one on the Celts’ bench is as capable offensively. Wanamaker and Ojeleye can hit uncontested jumpers, but they aren’t going to create much for themselves. They don’t take or make pull-up triples. Toronto, on the other hand, can create offense through bench players. Expect Powell or Ibaka to be the leading bench scorer in every game; if not, Toronto will have a problem. Enes Kanter scored 10 in game three against Philadelphia, but otherwise Boston didn’t have a single bench player score in double digits in the first round; in fact, Boston’s bench averaged 20.0 points a game in the first round. Ibaka averaged 19.3 and Powell 17.5 by themselves in the first round; Toronto has dramatically more offense coming off the bench.

If Toronto limits Boston’s stars, particularly in those transitional lineups, then the Raptors could have a huge advantage off the bench. Toronto rosters more players than Boston who can score 20 points on any given night. They need to find a way to turn that into an advantage, and if they do, potency off the bench is the one area in which Toronto has a massive edge over Boston.

Offensive and Defensive Styles

The content in this section has, of course, leaked into virtually every other section of the preview. First let’s start by breaking down the quantity and quality of different types of plays for both teams.

(This data is from nba.com’s publicly available data, which does not include passes away from plays. This limits the usefulness of data. For example, Toronto’s post-ups are most threatening because if Siakam or Gasol achieves deep position, they draw help and kick the ball to a waiting shooter. Though the shot is created through the post-up, this data only includes it in the spot-up category. That’s why Toronto’s post-up and pick-and-roll numbers are so low, because the real meat of those possessions – hitting perimeter shooters after the ball touches the paint – isn’t included in the data.)

This is the second time I’m delving into Toronto’s preferred style of play, so I’ll try to keep it fairly minimal.

Toronto runs in transition and launches a lot of catch-and-shoot triples. That seems true of all NBA teams in this day and age, but it’s especially true of Toronto. In other areas, though, the Raptors are willing to sacrifice the mathematically correct shot for variance in style.

Toronto’s personnel determines their style to some extent, which seems like a truism, but isn’t actually true of a lot of NBA teams. When Lowry or VanVleet is in the game, the team runs more pick-and-roll. When Powell is in the game, the team runs a lot in transition and shoots a lot of catch-and-shoot jumpers. When Gasol is in the game, the team cuts more often, or at least scores more often off of those cuts. When Hollis-Jefferson is in the game, the team has infinitely more post-up, face-up, jab-step, spinning, fading, pumping, re-spinning, fadeaway jumpers.

Siakam is a good microcosm for Toronto’s offensive style of play, as he is at minimum proficient in every set, whether running the pick-and-roll, screening in the pick-and-roll (either short rolling, hard rolling, or popping), using off-ball screens, hitting spot-up jumpers, cutting, posting-up, or just plain isolating. The Raptors, meanwhile, do plenty of all the above, but they aren’t tops in the league at any one thing. That does make them harder to guard, as Toronto does not have one style to which it is subservient. But Toronto’s half-court offense is its greatest weakness, and the team doesn’t have too many dependable sources of buckets when the three-point arc is cold. Siakam is supposed to provide that lift, but his efficiency at the rim has wavered this season. At times, Ibaka can do it. Powell can offer flashy rim buckets scoring when his jumper is cold. And Toronto’s shooting will go through cold stretches; Boston has long, athletic wings — even off the bench — who recover to bother shooters far more than simple openness would indicate. Players like Brown, Tatum, Smart, Ojeleye, Langford, and others are difficult to shoot over when flying towards the perimeter; Toronto needs to be able to attack the rotation and score on the inside.

The Raptors can struggle against switches. Unfortunately for Toronto, Boston switches a whole heck of a lot. A number of Toronto’s fancy offensive sets will bog into nothing when Boston switches everything. Can Toronto’s players attack mismatches, hit the paint, and either finish around help or kick out to open shots? If so, the Raptors will be fine. If not, the Raptors’ defense better hold up at all times, or Toronto better be able to keep its transition attack alive. Boston is going to make Toronto prove its players can score against mismatches. Boston is solid at defending in isolation, finishing the year allowing 0.89 points per possession on an isolation possession, twelfth-best in the league. But a slow, grinding pace could also be an advantage; Toronto allowed only 0.81 points per possession in isolation. It’s not like the Raptors are going to give up easy buckets, even if their offense stalls.

Boston’s defense is otherwise extremely aggressive. When necessary, they do almost as much digging into the post as they do switching. If Toronto plays static offense, Boston can force a lot of turnovers. Smart especially causes havoc in those situations, as the on-ball defender, digging, or hawking passing lanes. The Celtics were tops in the league at defending pick-and-rolls, and they clog the lane and trust their athletes to recover to the perimeter. It works, and it’s very similar to how Toronto defends pick-and-rolls. Boston doesn’t double or blitz as much as Toronto, and they aren’t quite as adaptable on defense, but they are still extremely good.

Just to focus on Smart a little bit more, he’s an evolved version of Lowry on the defensive end. He is capable of guarding anyone from point guards to centers, he creates absolute chaos on the defensive end, and he also draws oodles of offensive fouls. He has exceptional steal and block rates for a guard, and Boston’s defense has been better every year of his career with Smart on the court. When he plays, opponents’ turnover rates spike, and he’s been between 71st and 93rd percentile in that every year of his career. He will infuriate Raptors and Raptors’ fans alike during this series. He’ll spend at least some time on every rotation Raptor,  either on switches or as a primary defender, and Smart will probably be Boston’s counter to throw at Siakam or VanVleet if either gets hot and torches a more traditional matchup. If Smart hits his triples — he  has made himself into a league average shooter over the last few years, despite taking very difficult shots — then he’ll be one of Boston’s most impactful players. The Raptors have to make him a negative on offense.

Boston’s offense is difficult to define. There are specific elements worth mentioning. For one, the Celtics drive to score. The Raptors pass out of drives more than any other team in the league, 44.8 percent in the regular season. The Celtics pass out of only 33.2 percent of drives, which is the second-lowest rate in the league. They don’t have a single player who wants to pass when driving; they drive to score, even Walker, a minuscule point guard with a nasty array of floaters and finishes. That is partially why the Celtics finish so many possessions via the pick-and-roll handler, averaging more than 10 per game more than Toronto in both the regular season and playoffs. That is also why the Celtics take so few catch-and-shoot jumpers, only 21.7 attempts per game in the regular season, second-fewest in the league. Similarly, it’s why the Celtics averaged the sixth-fewest assists per game. Their propensity to drive to score informs a lot of their offensive style.

The Celtics, like the Raptors, are happy to morph to attack a weakness. For example, they don’t run a league-leading amount of pick-and-roll, but they will turn to it to attack a specific defense or a specific defender (see: Walker, scorching the Sixers in round one from the mid-range). To that point, the Celtics launch the second-most pull-up jumpers per game, with Tatum and Walker both in the top-ten in the league individually in terms of frequency. Boston doesn’t have a huge amount of player or ball movement, but some of that is because its players are such talented individual scorers. The Celtics take mostly mathematically correct shots — layups and threes — but Tatum and Walker are allowed to shoot from anywhere because both are deadly mid-range scorers. That the Celtics have a varying attack and middling ball and player movement is partially why they don’t turn the ball over.

Boston adapts its style to its players, which is important and beneficial in the playoffs. But there are downsides. If Toronto clamps Walker and Tatum, Boston’s offensive structure will be unable to create good looks for other players. None of Boston’s bench players can create their own looks if the stars are struggling. Basically, it’s on the talent to create the offense in Boston, not the system, which is a good thing but can look bad if teams defend the stars well enough. Toronto has the ability to do that.

Prediction

With all that behind us, it’s remarkable how similarly these teams play. That being said, Toronto has a stingier defense with fewer (read: no) attackable holes. The Raptors also have a few more offensive weapons, including multiple off the bench. That gives the Raptors a slightly larger margin of error. The Lowry injury would be enough to swing the series for me, but I expect him to play. Even if he is limited, he’s still a wonderful passer, shooter, screener, rebounder, defender, everything-er. It cannot be overstated how good it is that these two teams are finally playing each other, and the Raptors are equipped to win in a few different ways. Raps in six.

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