Two teams, two sweeps, the second round, and one date with destiny. What better way to dive into the series than by broadening our perspectives. We’ve already done the roundtable with a variety of Raptors Republic writers, broken into two parts, here and here. We’ve done the deep dive here. It’s time, now, to chat with the enemy. If I was going to do it, I had to go after the best. Daniel Poarch from CelticsBlog, an SBNation-affiliated site, kindly spent some time chatting with me about the upcoming series. You can find Daniel on Twitter here, and you’re going to want to follow him in advance of the series. He’s funny and smart and a wonderful writer. But if things go south for the Raptors, you’ll want to avoid Twitter entirely. Here’s the conversation.
Louis Zatzman: Hey buddy! Welcome! Thanks so much for doing this. Let’s dive in.
Boston won the season series 3-1 – why? Do you think those advantages will carry over to the playoffs?
Daniel Poarch: Yes and no. Winning the season series certainly helps their confidence level heading into this matchup, and I think they’ve discovered some advantages that will work in their favor. Jaylen Brown in particular has enjoyed a lot of success against the Toronto defense. But I tend to not set too much store in the regular season series when playoff time comes around. After all, the 76ers won the season series over Boston 3-1, and we saw how that worked out for them.
Louis: Nice, way to work the sweep in here nice and early. I hope it’s not the last time you reference it. Sweeping Embiid is no small feat. But the Celtics used Tatum to guard Lowry in the regular season. Was that just to avoid cross-matching, as Lowry also guarded Tatum, or is there a deeper reason? And do you expect that to continue?
Daniel: It’s probably quite a bit to do with cross-matching, as you said, as well as wanting to keep their weakest defensive starter (Kemba Walker) off Lowry as much as possible. But the big thing with Tatum’s defense is that the individual matchup doesn’t really matter quite so much — he does his best work as a help defender where he can wield those long arms of his to wreak havoc in passing lanes and at the rim. The Celtics are well-equipped for switches, so Lowry will no doubt end up seeing a lot of different defensive looks throughout the series.
Louis: How you described Tatum on defense is also true of Lowry, in a way. But especially true of Marcus Smart. Smart and Lowry play such similar brands of winning, intense, grifting defense. Who out-grifts whom, and which fan base explodes first in complaining about the other?
Daniel: I have a lot of respect for Lowry’s commitment to the grifter’s lifestyle, but Smart makes some plays on the court that absolutely defy explanation. After his steal-to-outlet pass in Game 3 against the Sixers, I joked that he often makes it look like he’s just playing a completely different sport than anyone else. I mean, come on, this is basically some kind of martial arts kick:
One of my favorite things about Smarf is how often he makes it look like he’s playing an entirely different sport https://t.co/MfZBpWDXlF
— Dr. Lawyer Nxlyn Moklyx (@DanielfromSport) August 22, 2020
As for the latter part, I’d bet on Celtics fans losing their heads with Lowry more quickly than Raptors fans with Smart. For one, the Celtics have had a turbulent experience with the bubble refs since the restart began, so that’s a pretty sore subject that will no doubt pop up as soon as Lowry grifts a charge off Tatum for the first time. And for another, Milwaukee Bucks fans have set such a high bar for Marcus Smart hatred that it would take a lot for Raptors fans to impress me in that regard. I’m pretty sure Bucks fans want him put on trial in the Hague.
Louis: Let’s head to the other side of the ball. Both teams use very flexible offenses, able to shape-shift into whatever. Do you expect to see a lot of basic high pick-and-roll, or do you think it will be more complex than that?
Daniel: Sorry in advance, but you’re gonna hear me talk a lot about Gordon Hayward’s sprained ankle in this piece. It has a lot of consequences for the Celtics in this series, especially when we discuss Boston’s half-court offense. Since Hayward went down, the Celtics have really struggled to generate consistent offense at times. They miss his secondary ball-handling and offensive smarts. They’re still brilliant at funneling pull-up looks to Tatum and Walker via high screens and handoffs, and we’re doubtless going to see quite a few of those (especially against a Toronto defense that allows three-point attempts at one of the highest rates in the league). But don’t be shocked to see Boston’s offense go through some dysfunctional stretches as the season goes on.
Louis: Brad Stevens versus Nick Nurse is a fun side plot. Do you think either team has a coaching advantage?
Daniel: While I love Brad as much as anybody, I think the Raptors have a slight coaching edge in this series. I’m not sure there are more than one or two coaches in the league I would rank above Nurse right now. Stevens is one of the best in the business in drawing up defensive schemes and ATO plays, and he deserves a lot of credit for embracing the pull-up heavy nature of the current Celtics roster. But on the flip side, he sometimes struggles to make adjustments on the fly, and he’s developed some issues with taking appropriate timeouts that have been particularly headache-inducing. He’s one of the NBA’s upper echelon coaches without a doubt, but I think the run that Nurse has been on for the past two seasons gives him the edge in my eyes right now.
Louis: Wow! Didn’t expect that. As long as I have you talking up Toronto, let’s move a little deeper into the pro-Raptors part of this series. Who are Boston’s most important bench players? It seems like Stevens goes 11 deep — will it stay deep, or will he cut the rotation to 7 or 8 when it matters? And how will the bench hold up against Norm Powell and Serge Ibaka?
Daniel: Well, one of the many consequences of the Hayward injury is that it’s forced their most valuable bench player — Marcus Smart — into the starting lineup. Those second unit groups really miss him. Instead of any one rock-solid reliable option, you’re now looking at a smattering of wild cards. And much as he did against Philadelphia after the Hayward injury, I’d expect to see Brad keep the rotation long and mix-and-match supporting guys depending on what works, while keeping the starters’ minutes pretty heavy.
There are a lot of questions, though. Can rookie Romeo Langford hang tough against guys like Powell in the Raptors’ deep wing rotation? Is Grant Williams playable against the gigantic duo of Gasol and Ibaka? Can the Timelord play with enough discipline to check a seasoned vet like Gasol? Will Stevens mercifully keep Enes Kanter tethered to the bench now that he doesn’t have Joel Embiid to torment?
Personally, I’d bet on Langford seeing a lot of run in this one. He’s still incredibly raw, thanks in no small part to an injury riddled rookie season, but he’s strung together some impressive performances defensively in the bubble. He’s long and rangy and athletic, and plays with a surprising amount of composure on the defensive end despite his inexperience. If it were up to me, I’d go so far as to slot him above Semi Ojeleye (the ostensible third wing sans-Hayward right now) in the rotation. It’s just a better matchup for Romeo.
Louis: Prediction time. Who do you take and in how many games?
Daniel: I could really go either way on this. The Raptors are a tough team with an elite defense and a necessary dose of reigning champion swagger. They are far deeper than the Celtics, and like I mentioned before, they have one of the game’s very best coaches in Nick Nurse. I also can’t mention enough how brutal that Gordon Hayward injury is here.
But when it comes down to it, the Celtics have the edge in terms of top-end talent. Jayson Tatum is the best player in this series — and in terms of performance, arguably among the very best in the entire bubble playoffs thus far. He’s just playing at an absurdly dominant level on both ends of the floor, and with Kemba Walker (healthy and explosive) and Jaylen Brown (outstanding against Toronto) backing him up, I’m confident in his ability to lead this team to the Eastern Conference Finals. I’m taking the Celtics in seven long, tough games.