Both the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are familiar with the concept of LeBron James and the proverbial playoff switch that recent iterations of the Cleveland Cavs have indeed flipped. Most NBA fans probably began expecting more of the same, especially after new GM Koby Altman’s trade deadline roster overhaul.
That didn’t happen. After the initial burst of inspired play that saw them win three in a row before the All-Star break, including a dominant win over the clearly exhausted, Marcus Smart-less Celtics, the Cavs have dropped four of six. They’re currently 9 losses behind Toronto and 6 losses behind Boston. In fact, they’re closer to the 8th seeded Miami Heat than the 2nd seeded Celtics. Those that figured it doesn’t matter who LeBron James plays with, because he’s such a mythological, historically-great NBA player, have no idea what defense is. Defense is the act of defending the other team’s five players, and it entails at least four decent to very good defenders to play reasonably good defense. Ideally, all five of a team’s players are at least decent and give genuine effort. Putting together a cohesive defensive unit takes some time, and the Cavs don’t have it, which is why they’ve dropped games to the Sixers and Nuggets and haven’t held any of their last four opponents under 108 points.
The Celtics and Raptors, meanwhile boast two of the best defenses in the NBA, which is why they will finish as the top two seeds in the East. The bigger question is how these two young teams will fare in the playoffs. The answer is: TBD.
Toronto is better than they’ve been in the past, with a much improved bench, and more defensive versatility and length. Trading for Serge Ibaka has proven wise. Drafting and developing wisely has proven beneficial. Draft experts were somewhat surprised OG Anunoby fell to #23, and NBA experts were equally surprised when Anunoby started draining corner threes in November and December. Anunoby is yet another example of how the NBA has changed. A player with a well-defined defensive skill-set (switchable, strong and long), simply has to hit a corner three in order to be useful. Particulary in an offense with two creators like DeRozan and Lowry. The Raptors depth has been as impressive as DeRozan’s continued growth and three-point range. Even though DeRozan’s percentage has dropped back to 31.5% from deep, the fact that he’s taking over 3.5 per game (twice his career average), allows for the offense to flow more smoothly than it used to over the past few years. The bench crew consists of great names as well. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. All recent draft picks and all showing defensive chops. VanVleet has been a revelation in his second season. The undrafted 5'11" point guard had to prove the doubters wrong. His Draft Express profile hints at the lack of attention he received in June 2016:
VanVleet was measured at 6'1 in shoes during the 2015 Pan Am Training Camp with a 6'2 wingspan, which puts him below average in terms of height and length compared with most NBA point guards. He isn’t a great athlete either, as he doesn’t possess a high top speed or a quick burst, but he has an exceptionally high basketball IQ, can operate at different speeds and utilizes his strength well to make an impact in the half-court. VanVleet will have to prove he can translate his effectiveness against the more physically gifted guards he’ll encounter at the professional level, but his feel for the game, on-court presence and stable demeanor will help his chances tremendously. —
Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Fred-VanVleet-58750/ ©DraftExpress
One overly simplistic way to view VanVleet’s impact: In 43 of Toronto’s wins, he’s contributed 8.8 points, 3.5 assists, and shot 44% from deep (+19.6). In 16 losses, VanVleet has averaged 6.7 points, 1.9 assists and shot 29.5% from deep (+5.1).
In terms of April and May, and Toronto’s chances of getting to the NBA Finals, the impact of VanVleet and Anunoby cannot be overstated. Playoff rotations and days off between games make the impact of bench depth less important, but the impact of 6th/7th/8th spots on the depth chart remain crucial. Because of their defensive tenacity, VanVleet and Anunoby will be on the court. The question is whether they can maintain their offensive spark against playoff defenses.
Marcus Smart’s absence coincided with the exhaustion of Games 48–59 on the pre-All-Star-break schedule. The Celtics with Smart are a different defensive team. The Celtics with Terry Rozier as 6th man coming off the bench are a different bench. Though he was excellent as a starter, Rozier’s offensive spark is essential to the Celtics dominance. If Rozier is showing that extra bounce and creating off the dribble, suddenly Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis are getting wide-open looks. The domino effect is real. Instead, the wobbly-legged Celtics were thin without Smart and the effect was exaggerated because they faced solid competition (losses to the Raptors, Pacers, newly-traded-for-Cavs, and the Clippers).
In any event, the All-Star break came. The team rested. Smart’s hand healed. And now they’ve regained their early season swagger. The only caveat would be Al Horford’s sub-par shooting over those last 5 games. The Celtics are playing with that defensive intensity they lacked and they came very close to halting the Rockets’ 15-game winning streak in Houston on Saturday night.
March Schedule (Celtics-Raptors Meet Again)
Saturday, March 31st and Tuesday, April 4th. Those are the two remaining clashes between Boston and Toronto. With a three-game cushion in the loss column, while having won 11 of their last 12, the Raptors certainly look poised finish with the East’s top seed. On their relatively soft March calendar, the Raptors face five strong opponents: Houston (3/9), @ Indiana (3/15), Oklahoma City (3/18), Cleveland (3/21), and Denver (3/27).
Comparatively, the Celtics have six tough match-ups:
Minnesota without Jimmy Butler (3/8), Indiana (3/11), the Wizards (3/14), and later this month have road match-ups with solid playoff-hopeful competition (New Orleans, Portland, and Utah).
It will take a bit of luck for the Celtics to find themselves even with Toronto when they meet on March 31st.
A bigger question might be: Does the #1 seed really matter? Does avoiding Cleveland (assuming Cleveland even finishes 3rd) make a huge difference?
The Sixers, Wizards and Bucks are all playing well. No team wants to face Embiid in the playoffs. No team wants to face Giannis in the playoffs. The Bucks have more seasoning. The Sixers have more talent and the sharp-shooting of J.J. Redick.
The Wizards are playing with more balance since Wall’s injury has propelled Tomas Satoransky into the starting lineup. Wall’s return remains uncertain, as it could be anywhere from 2–4 more weeks, according to last Friday’s reports.
Regardless, there is a psychological boost that comes with earning the top seed in the conference. Last year’s Celtics finished 1st, but 53 wins was a less-than-dominant top seed. It was clear the Cavs weren’t pushing for it. This year, there will be a real push between Boston and Toronto, and the winner will likely avoid LeBron in the first two rounds.