The Boston Celtics won their season series against the defending-champion Toronto Raptors 3-1, including a 122-100 blowout three weeks ago, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens dismissed this as meaningless. "What matters," he said on Tuesday, "is how we play on Thursday and beyond."
Thursday has come and gone, and how Boston plays when the second-round series starts on Sunday hardly seems to matter. At Stevens' Zoom press conference on Saturday, no one asked any basketball questions -- all anybody wanted to talk about was the Milwaukee Bucks' wildcat strike, the NBA postponing three days' worth of games and the commitments that came out of the players' meeting with team owners. The same was true at Raptors coach Nick Nurse's media availability.
The NBA bubble almost burst before the second round of the playoffs started because players are tired of police officers shooting unarmed Black people. The players chose to stay in Orlando, though, so the games will go on, as will our coverage of them. As inconsequential as this might feel, here are a few facts about the Celtics-Raptors series:
- Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable for Game 1 with a left ankle sprain, but practiced on Saturday. Nurse said he "looked OK."
- Gordon Hayward left the bubble because of a Grade 3 right ankle sprain, and he is not expected to play in the series.
- Both teams are coming off first-round sweeps against opponents that were not at full strength: Boston beat up the Philadelphia 76ers, who were without Ben Simmons, and Toronto tormented the Brooklyn Nets, who were missing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and Nicolas Claxton (and only had Joe Harris for the first two games).
And here are 10 questions:
1. How bad is Lowry's injury?
If Lowry is sidelined or diminished, the Raptors have little room for error. "I think Lowry is one of the most underrated players in the league," Stevens said Tuesday, specifically pointing to his defense. I'm not sure if that label can still be applied to Lowry after last year's title run, but Stevens was definitely right to say that he is "all over the place" on defense. Off the ball, no guard is more disruptive.
The Raptors went 12-2 without Lowry in the regular season, and the lineup with Norman Powell next to the other four starters dominated in the 201 minutes it played, with a plus-16.8 net rating. The bigger concern, though, is the trickle-down effect.
Toronto doesn't have a true third point guard on the roster, and rookie Terence Davis will presumably take the backup role if Lowry misses any time. No one should underestimate Fred VanVleet anymore, but part of what makes the Raptors special is that they have two 6-foot guards who make plays, shoot deep 3s, set screens like bigs, force turnovers, defend the post like bigs and box out like bigs.
2. Can Boston make up for Hayward's absence?
Hayward and Lowry are completely different players stylistically, but they have a few things in common: They can play in any kind of lineup, they don't need the ball to be effective and they won't be targeted on defense.
The Celtics are fortunate to be able to slide Marcus Smart into Hayward's spot. He's an overqualified sixth man anyway, and he will make the starting lineup even better defensively.
Smart is reliable running pick-and-rolls, but, unlike Hayward, he's not much of a one-on-one threat. This makes Boston less scary -- what set this team apart from other contenders is that opposing defenses had to enter each game worried about Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Hayward making plays in isolation. Jaylen Brown is still developing in this area, and Hayward's absence raises the difficulty level because the spacing will be worse and Brown might be guarded by a better individual defender.
Without Hayward, the Celtics are still a versatile team with multiple playmakers. He is a connector, though, the kind of player who can go on an individual scoring run next to a bunch of reserves at the beginning of the second quarter. They'll miss that.
3. Is Toronto's half-court offense good enough?
Everybody who thought that the Raptors would take a major step back without Kawhi Leonard was wrong, but that is not because they've magically made up for his ability to score against a set defense. Toronto's halfcourt offense fell from eighth to 16th this season, per Cleaning The Glass, and Boston's halfcourt defense ranks fourth.
The Raptors' skeptics think that they'll have trouble finding good looks in high-pressure situations. They will point to Pascal Siakam's relative inefficiency as a leading man, the Celtics' length and the way the offense bogged down in the second round last season against the Sixers. Believers will point to their success in crunch time.
Toronto will enter the series knowing that Boston will be switching all over the place, trying to disrupt its offensive flow. Some teams try to counter that with relentless matchup-hunting, but the Raptors' philosophy is to try to ignore the switch and keep running their stuff. If the ball movement and player movement is good enough, they can naturally find mismatches and take advantage of defensive mistakes.
One variable to watch: Marc Gasol's playing time. He doesn't dominate dudes in the post anymore, but he still had a star-like impact on Toronto's offense in the regular season: They scored 99 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt in Gasol's 1153 non-garbage-time minutes, per Cleaning The Glass, and only two teams (Dallas and Milwaukee) scored more efficiently than that. Sometimes, "making your teammates better" is not just a cliche.
4. Can the Celtics pick-and-roll this defense to death?
Even without Hayward, Boston is difficult to defend in pick-and-roll situations. This is mostly because of Walker's creativity and the fact that both he and Tatum can step into pull-up 3s, but it's also because they space the floor well and their screeners set real screens.
The Raptors, though, make ballhandlers think, and they finished the regular season with the second-best defense in the league. They won't let Walker and Tatum get comfortable, and they certainly won't let them see the same scheme over and over again.
"Toronto mixes up their coverages," Stevens said. "They're excellent at that. They keep you off-balance. They're excellent at that. They're comfortable taking risks because they play so hard to make up for that."
The Raptors have aggressive perimeter defenders, and they force a ton of turnovers. Boston rarely commits turnovers, and taking care of the ball will surely be a point of emphasis. You can expect Toronto to try to make Tatum into a passer, and to try to get the ball out of Walker's hands when he's playing in bench-heavy lineups.
5. Can VanVleet keep this up?
VanVleet shot 19-for-34 (55.9 percent) from 3-point range in the Nets series, picking up right where he left off in last year's Finals. More importantly, though, he finished at the rim efficiently, passed exceptionally and provided his usual brand of dogged defense.
There will be doubts about VanVleet's ability to keep it going offensively against Boston, especially if Lowry isn't playing or isn't himself. He'll likely be the primary defender on Walker, and he'll also need to get in the paint, finish through contact and bail the Raptors out when the clock is running down.
6. Can Walker be exploited?
Walker is a pesky and smart perimeter defender, but, much like Stephen Curry was for the Golden State Warriors, the elite defenders around him make him Boston's de facto weak link. Toronto knows how important he is to the Celtics' offense, so it has to make him work on the other end.
This doesn't mean the Raptors will pick on Walker like the Utah Jazz have targeted Michael Porter Jr. -- Boston is savvy about switching out of mismatches, and it will consider it a win if Toronto ends up trying to isolate against him or post him up repeatedly. Nurse should try to put him in uncomfortable situations, though, and this is where it helps that Toronto's guards are such good screeners.
7. What of Boston's bench?
There are a bunch of smaller questions here: How much does Stevens trust rookie wing Romeo Langford? When Daniel Theis takes a seat in Game 1, will he be replaced by Enes Kanter or Robert Williams III? Will Grant Williams keep making his 3s, and can Semi Ojeleye start making his?
Every one of these answers is more important because of Hayward's absence, and reserve guard Brad Wanamaker is an obvious X-factor, too. The Celtics aren't known as a particularly deep team, but they need to find ways to get by when Tatum is on the bench -- this was one of their few difficulties against Philadelphia.
8. Can the Raptors run?
I can't believe I'm only getting to this now. Toronto wants to run all the time, and only the Bucks ran more than it did in the regular season. Nobody defends in transition better than Boston, though, which presents an obvious problem.
If the Raptors can get some steals and find opportunities to push the ball off live rebounds, maybe they can beat Boston without putting up awesome numbers in the halfcourt. Siakam is particularly dangerous in the open court, and you can expect the Celtics to treat him the same way they treat Giannis Antetokounmpo: By sprinting back and building a wall.
9. Can Anunoby slow down Tatum?
Toronto forward OG Anunoby is often assigned to the opposing team's best wing player, and he has the quickness, strength and length to (theoretically) bother Tatum. The Athletic's John Hollinger previewed this matchup in early July, calling it "the first edition of what could be a decade of faceoffs between the two." Defending Tatum will be a team effort, but this is an opportunity for Anunoby to show how much he has improved.
"He's shown a level of super high interest in becoming a defensive stopper," Nurse said. "You know what that means, he's working at it, he's got some desire, it's a sense of pride for him to go out there and play hard at the defensive end and guard the best players in this league."
At his best, Tatum is in that category. When he's hitting side-step 3s and contested pull-up jumpers, there is nothing anybody can do. It is Toronto's job to make him take those tough ones, and Anunoby figures to play a prominent role in that.
10. How different will this series look a few games in?
Any X's-and-O's dork will tell you that this is the best coaching matchup of the playoffs. Stevens and Nurse have swung series with adjustments before, and it'll be fascinating to see how this one evolves.
I highly doubt these teams' rotations and defensive assignments in Game 4 will be the same as they were in Game 1. They might not even be the same after halftime of Game 1.