2020 NBA Playoffs, East Semifinal Preview: Toronto Raptors (2) vs Boston Celtics (3)

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Game 1 of the East Semis between the Celtics and Raptors is Sunday, August 30.

We’ve seen a whirlwind few days during which the NBA Playoffs came to a halt by way of the Milwaukee Bucks players striking — leading to the postponement of all playoff games and WNBA and MLB games for a few days. The conversation around social justice and the continued police shootings of unarmed black people in the United States remains top of mind thanks to these players. A league of players who are roughly 90% African-American that has been bubbled for the last month in Orlando, Florida, forced meetings and initiated meaningful action — and plans for future action — which became a gradually unified presence, pushing for progress and action, rather than letting the status quo prevail.

As fans who recognize the humanity of the players, the power of the Black Lives Matter movement and protest movements in general, and the comparatively unimportant games, we are thrust into a strange place —acknowledging the bigger picture and still watching and following the playoffs — because they are intoxicating and dramatic and a relief from the pandemic and Trump.

There are initiatives underway toward using each of the 30 NBA arenas as voting places in November, and renewed pressure on NBA owners to do more in the push for racial progress, but the playoffs are also back…all in these makeshift bubble arenas with screens surrounding the court rather than actual fans, and soft white noise replicating the crowd sound.

Now that the Bucks finished the Magic early this afternoon, and the second round match-ups are in place, let’s take a look at the upcoming series in the East.

(2) Toronto Raptors vs (3) Boston Celtics

Injuries

  • Celtics forward Gordon Hayward left the bubble after injuring his ankle (Grade 3 sprain) and is unlikely to play in the series.
  • Raptors guard Kyle Lowry sprained his ankle in the first round against the Nets. He is listed as questionable for Game 1, but expected to play.

Nobody quite knew what to make of the Raptors this year. They were coming off a franchise-defining season in which they won the title over the injured Warriors with Kawhi Leonard at the helm…then Toronto lost Leonard and Danny Green to free-agency. Pascal Siakam’s leap into offensive star and the health and development of O.G. Anunoby were two main reasons the Raptors didn’t slip much.

Celtics offense vs Toronto’s shape-shifting defense

Nick Nurse is daring and experimental and he has the defenders to make his experiments work wonders. A recent 538 article explored the various strategies the Raptors have employed and analyzed the success of the Raptors defense. To put it simply…they are smart, cohesive, adaptive, and extremely long. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have been known as great defenders for a long time. Pascal Siakam is gigantic and agile. O.G. Anunoby may be the most physical wing defender not named Marcus Smart or Kawhi Leonard. Those four are enough to strike fear into opponents. Fred VanVleet is an absolute pest to ball-handlers (Sam Cassell, Dennis Johnson and Vern Maxwell all come to mind). Serge Ibaka is getting creaky, but still a shot-blocking force and smart on pick-and-rolls. They all are wise enough and communicate well enough to adapt to Nurse’s constantly changing schemes.

If Lowry is less than 100%, the Celtics’ chances of offensive success rise, though Norman Powell played very well in the 14 games Lowry missed this year. Lowry, whose career has been anything but linear, no longer has to deal with the added self-imposed pressure he used to put on himself to succeed in front of home fans — and winning the title last year has to have taken some of that pressure off. Until last year, the Raptors often shrank in the playoffs — which was why DeRozan ended up in San Antonio. But that past seems ancient by now.

This year’s Celtics, meanwhile, became a balanced offensive machine, with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward each making each other more valuable. The offense thrived with off-the-bounce creativity of Kemba and Tatum’s improved patience, range (45% on 8 attempts per game from deep vs Sixers), shot-selection and general comfort in isolation. Kemba and Tatum take pressure off of each other and defenses were left scrambling to cover Jaylen and Hayward, or Theis on a rim-run. Tatum was clearly motivated to get the All-Star nod…and when he did, he got even more comfortable.

Jaylen’s speed and dynamic leaping make him a transition threat. His game has rounded out, with an improved handle and added angles of attack off the dribble. All of this hinging on his confidence from deep — the threat of the catch-and-shoot leads to improved penetration as the defenses bend to contest. To my eye, Jaylen Brown will be the biggest x-factor in the series. He saved the offense in the 4th quarter of Game 3 against Philly, when the game became extra-physical and Tatum was slowed down. Those that remember the 2018 playoff run will remember how well Jaylen seems to play in big moments, feeding off the intensity of the playoffs.

Hayward was the glue that kept the ball moving and found his way to the elbows and mid-range, propping up the second unit’s offense. Without Hayward, Marcus Smart slides into a starting role alongside Kemba in the backcourt. It means more bench minutes for Semi Ojeleye, Enes Kanter, or rookie Grant Williams, depending on the match-up. None of those three inspire confidence when the ball swings to them on the perimeter, though Grant Williams (25% on the year in limited attempts from deep, did manage to make all 4 of his attempts vs Philly).

Brad Wannamaker has stepped into the reliable 7th/8th man role, which becomes even more critical in Hayward’s absence. The minutes Tatum and/or Kemba sit are minutes that Brad Stevens’ hopes the Celtics can tread water offensively.

The biggest questions:

How will the Celtics keep Toronto off the boards?

Without Hayward, the Celtics lose height and depth. Tatum and Brown are long, but not especially broad, and will get worn down by Marc Gasol, Ibaka and Siakam attacking the glass, not to mention the human bowling ball known as Kyle Lowry. Nobody can quite box out either Lowry or Marcus Smart. Enes Kanter and Grant Williams will be physical as needed, but the Raptors are a fearsome and huge bunch.

Can O.G. Anunoby bother/limit Jayson Tatum?

This match-up will be fascinating. Anunoby has been waiting for the moment to be anointed a defensive stopper. Tatum has pushed himself into the top echelon of one-on-one scorers.

Can Boston keep Toronto out of transition?

The Raptors half-court offense is much less dangerous minus Kawhi. Siakam has yet to prove he can handle the crunch-time scorer load that Nurse will need from him. Great defense and transition offense allow Siakam to get easier looks.

Can Boston survive the minutes Tatum/Kemba sit?

Staggering their minutes some would help, but they may need both to play 40 minutes either way. The March-July break means fresher legs, but Kemba’s knee was a lingering problem before the long rest. Stevens may not push Kemba past 33–35 minutes.

Prediction: Celtics in 7

Expect 3 or 4 very close, extremely physical games.

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