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Running Raptors: Can the Boston Celtics slow down Toronto’s transition game?

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The Boston Celtics ability to defend the Toronto Raptors in transition will play a key role in their upcoming second-round showdown.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics held the Philadelphia 76ers to just 19 total fastbreak points in their four game first-round sweep. That’s an absurdly stingy mark, though fairly unsurprising. The Sixers are led by a plodding, ground bound big man in Joel Embiid, and were missing one of the few players on their roster interested in pushing tempo.

Ben Simmons - a grab and go demon whose size and speed are the stuff of nightmares in the open court - was sidelined with a knee injury. Boston benefitted mightily as a result, as Philadelphia struggled to find anyone capable or really willing to run. The Celtics defense effectively turned off the spigot of high efficiency that is transition offense.

Limiting opportunities for fast break points is a core principle in Boston. The Celtics’ centers sprint back to the free throw line to clog up the middle of the court, while the team’s army of long, athletic wing players scramble to deal with spot up shooters fanning to the wings. Head coach Brad Stevens has little patience for anyone disinterested in executing that strategy.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The Sixers didn’t do much to stress test Boston’s commitment to defending in transition. That trend won’t hold as the Celtics face off with the Toronto Raptors in Round Two of the NBA Playoffs. Their Eastern Conference foes to the north finished 18.4% of their possessions on the break, adding 3.6 points per 100 possessions to their overall efficiency via points in transition per Cleaning the Glass, both of which rated as the second best marks in the league.

The Raptors are built to run. Toronto starts two bowling balls of perpetual motion in its backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The former, in particular, is constantly itching to get the ball up court. He runs off of turnovers. He runs off of offensive rebounds. He even looks to run off makes from time to time. Lowry is a metronome of impatience, constantly seeking to find his team advantages by getting its offense into position before defenses are set.

For all his effort, Lowry isn’t even Toronto’s greatest weapon in battle for control of a game’s tempo. Pascal Siakam, the Raptors starting power forward and sometimes center, is a whirlwind of arms, legs, and frenetic energy. He’s a danger grabbing defensive rebounds and leading the break on his own or simply outrunning opponents to the rim as his teammates handle the ball.

Siakam, Lowry, and VanVleet are flanked by a deep bench of versatile athletic wings capable of punctuating transition possessions with assaults on the rim and open three-point bombs. Get everything just right and cut off the Raptors initial transition foray, and your reward is scrambling out to Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka lining up trail threes. Toronto’s two most frequently played veteran big men averaged identical 38.5% marks from beyond the arc this year.

Boston is as equipped as any team in the league to deal with the Raptors’ running. It’s unlikely that the Celtics will ever have anyone guarding Siakam that will be at a significant speed disadvantage, and Stevens will make very certain whomever is manning the center spot has positioning himself to limit transition damage top of mind. Toronto will score on the break regardless.

The Raptors are relentless, and exceptionally talented. They’ll score in transition, but Boston can’t be deterred. Slowing them must be a primary strategy. Toronto’s half court offense ranked a ho-hum 16th in efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass. Forcing the Raptors to try to score against a set defense as much as possible should bear pretty major fruit.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

The Celtics will need to walk a delicate balance of attempting to slow down their opponent while still pushing their own tempo offensively. Toronto had the NBA’s best half court defense during the regular season, surrendering a miniscule 88.8 points per 100 possessions. Grinding the game to a complete halt to limit the Raptors transition attacks probably isn’t a sustainable approach if it means letting Toronto load up and lock in defensively.

The Raptors also happen to be one of the league’s best transition defenses. The same versatility and athleticism that make them a handful pushing the ball offensively come in handy when limiting their opponents from doing the same. Nothing will come easy for Boston, which is precisely the reason this second round series is so intriguing.

Toronto mirrors the Celtics strengths. Both teams sport versatile rosters chock full of two-way players that can’t be schemed off the court. Both are stingy in all facets of defense. Both have whip smart coaches capable of making adjustments on the fly.

Games will need to be won on the margins. Don’t be surprised if who executes just a hair more effectively in transition is one of them.