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#3 Celtics vs #2 Raptors: Second Round Playoff Series Preview

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Boston took three-of-four off Toronto in the regular season, but will be without Gordon Hayward for this series

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors will meet in the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. This is a series fans have asked for between the two Atlantic Division rivals since Boston made it back to the playoffs with the Isaiah Thomas-led teams. Unfortunately, due to the unique circumstances of this season, all games will be played on neutral courts at Walt Disney World. The series schedule is as follows:

· Game 1 – Sunday 8/30 – 1:00 PM ET - ESPN

· Game 2 – Tuesday 9/1 – TBD - ESPN

· Game 3 – TBD

· Game 4 – TBD

· Game 5* – TBD *if necessary

· Game 6* – TBD *if necessary

· Game 7* – TBD *if necessary

During the regular season the teams met four times, with Boston winning three of the four matchups:

· Boston 112 – Toronto 106

· Boston 118 – Toronto 102

· Toronto 113 – Boston 97

· Boston 122 – Toronto 100

The first contest came in early in the season in October. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker all topped 20 points. The Celtics used 21 offensive rebounds to offset their poor 38.5% shooting to get the win.

The second matchup was a Christmas Day affair. Jaylen Brown scored 30 points to carry the Celtics on an off-night from Jayson Tatum. Overall, Boston shot 50% from the floor and still rebounded 13 of their own misses. Toronto played this game without Pascal Siakam.

A few days later, Toronto repaid the beat-down with a blowout of their own. The Raptors hot shooting carried them past a Celtics team that couldn’t find the bottom of the net, despite Toronto again being without Siakam.

The fourth, and final, regular season game took place in the bubble. Boston blasted Toronto, as seven Celtics scored in double-figures. This was the only matchup, aside from the first game, where both sides were healthy.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Health is going to play a factor in this series. It’s very likely that Boston will be without Gordon Hayward for the entirety of the series. Hayward is recovering from a badly sprained ankle he suffered in Game 1 of the first round. Recovery time was listed as four weeks and it’s been just over week. In addition, Hayward has left the bubble to rehab while being with his family for the impending birth of his son.

On the plus side, Kemba Walker looked great in the first round against the Philadelphia 76ers.

For Toronto, they enter the series with Kyle Lowry a question mark. Lowry sprained an ankle early in the Raptors Game 4 series-closeout victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Toronto has only said that Lowry is considered day-to-day and updates on his availability will be provided later. The rest of the Raptors key contributors are considered healthy and ready to go.

Starting Ballhandlers

Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart vs Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Unlike in the first round, where Philadelphia was at a decided disadvantage, this one is much, much closer. Kemba Walker is playing at the All-Star level he was at before having knee issues. He averaged 24.3 points per game on 49.3% shooting in Boston’s sweep of the Sixers. More importantly, Walker got the line 6.3 times per game, as he looked quick and explosive.

Marcus Smart was inserted in the starting five in place of Hayward. He had a nightmarish series shooting the ball, as he hit only 33% of his shots and just 13% from behind the arc. As per usual though, Smart made several big defensive plays throughout the series.

Smart’s defense will be huge in this series, and in some ways is a better option than Hayward would be. If Hayward were playing, Jaylen Brown would have to check either Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet. While Brown is an outstanding defender, small/quick guards still give him trouble. Now, Brad Stevens can match Smart to either Toronto starter and know he’s got a solid chance of slowing them down.

On offense, the Celtics are going to see different looks from the Raptors defense. When Marc Gasol is in, Toronto has favored drop coverage, not unlike what Boston saw from Philadelphia. In those instances, Walker (and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) need to take advantage via the pullup jumper. When Serge Ibaka comes in for Gasol, the Raptors tend to play up more. In those cases, look for the Celtics to force switches to attack the matchup they like best.

Defense is going to be a challenge, as both Lowry and VanVleet are capable of big scoring games. They both also make plays as passers to set up their teammates. In addition, both are strong enough to get inside and finish against the Celtics bigs.

One huge key to this series: stopping Toronto’s fastbreak offense. The Raptors were first in the NBA this season in fastbreak points scored. The Celtics guards and wings have to get back, or they’ll give up easy points.

One other note: Get ready for an epic flop-off. These four starting guards are all known for embellishing contact, especially when they take charges. It’s going to be frustrating and maddening at times, and it’s going to be that way for both sides.

Advantage: Toronto. This hinges on Lowry’s availability. If he’s out, the matchup tilts the Celtics way. If he’s in, you know what you’re getting from the Raptors offensively each game. That can make the difference in what should be a hard-fought series of close games.

Starting Forwards

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby

Toronto Raptors Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This is the matchup Boston needs to win to feel good about the series. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are both great. Pascal Siakam is great. OG Anunoby is playing great, but that’s the difference. Can Anunoby keep up his current level of play? If he can, this gets closer to a stalemate. If he can’t, then the Celtics have the advantage.

Tatum got it going late in the bubble and then proceeded to dominate Philadelphia throughout the first round. Tatum does it with long step-backs, drives to the rim and pullups off the dribble. He’ll probably draw Anunoby, as he’s Toronto’s best wing defender. Tatum has a little size on Anunoby that he has to take advantage of.

In addition, the Celtics will look to force switches to get Tatum working against Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet. While both are strong and rugged defenders, Tatum can go up and over them with his jumper. Tatum did struggle in three-of-four games against the Raptors, as they did a nice job of chasing him off his spots. But those three games came early in the season. In the bubble contest, Tatum looked the All-Star version he was for most of the second half of the season.

Brown was excellent against the Raptors this season. He scored 23 points per game on 56/50/82 shooting splits. Brown’s size and strength allows him to get where he wants against the Toronto guards. And when the Raptors put a bigger defender on him, he used his athleticism off the dribble. For Boston to win, they need Brown to have a big series.

On defense, the Celtics will use their “switch everything” approach. Expect Tatum to start out on Siakam. One key thing here is for Tatum to avoid the early foul trouble that plagued him against Philadelphia. As Siakam’s off-the-dribble game has improved, so has his ability to get to the free throw line. It was only two regular season games, but Siakam struggled to finish inside against Boston’s collapsing defense. That’s something to keep an eye on.

For Toronto to win, Anunoby needs to continue to make shots. He knocked down 39% of his three-pointers this year. In the bubble, Anunoby was up around 54%, but in the first round series against Brooklyn, he hit just 31%. He’s not a threat off the dribble, so the Raptors need him to be a threat from the arc. If there is a player the Celtics will drop off and live with beating them from the outside, it’s Anunoby.

Advantage: Boston. This is the opposite of the ballhandler matchup. Boston knows what they’ll get from Tatum and Brown every game. Toronto knows what they’ll get from Siakam, but Anunoby is a little more hit-or-miss. That tilts this one towards the Celtics.

Starting Center

Daniel Theis vs Marc Gasol

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

This one is a lot closer than the average fan probably thinks it is. Marc Gasol is no longer the offense/defense machine he once was. Gasol is still solid in his role and capable of delivering the occasional big game on offense, but that essentially describes Daniel Theis as well.

Look for Toronto and Gasol to play Theis similarly to how Philadelphia and Joel Embiid did. They’ll sag off him and force him to be a shooter. One difference is that Boston has already seen it now. Brad Stevens made a couple of small tweaks to that coverage by having Theis screen and roll vs popping out. The Celtics also started their actions closer to the top of the key than up high on the floor. And, when Embiid was completely ignoring Theis, the Celtics put him in the dunker spot where he could live off drive and dish passes from his teammates.

When Toronto has the ball, Gasol plays a pretty similar role to Theis. He’s a screener and passer more than scorer now. Over half his attempts come from behind the arc. Against Philadelphia, we saw Theis struggle when Embiid would post him up. Gasol isn’t that guy anymore. Maybe Nick Nurse works some of that back in, but it would take Toronto out of their normal flow of their offense.

Advantage: Even. Despite Gasol having the name-brand recognition, these two players are roughly the same guys with very similar roles for their teams. The one thing that could push this matchup in the Raptors direction is if Gasol starts playing through the post more. Theis doesn’t have the strength to handle him inside. Look for some straight post-ups there.

Reserves

Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford, Robert Williams vs Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

This is where the series could be decided. The Raptors get excellent reserve play from Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka essentially splits minutes with Gasol and gives Toronto a very different look when he’s in the game. He remains a threat to make rim runs, and he’ll pop out for jumpers as well. On defense, Ibaka’s still-good athleticism gives him the ability to press up in pick-and-roll defense.

Powell has become one of the more consistent scoring guards off the bench in the NBA. He’s a threat to go for 30 points any night. Look for Powell to be a handful in transition, as he loves to get out and run. If Lowry is out or limited, Powell’s role will only grow.

The rest of the Raptors reserves are a bit more of a mixed bag. Terence Davis had a great rookie season as a bench shooter, but hasn’t been in the rotation as much in the bubble and in the first round. Matt Thomas has seen just as many minutes, in a similar role. No matter who it is, Boston has account for Davis or Thomas, as they can get hot from behind the arc.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is as close to an energy wing as Toronto has. He’s not a threat offensively unless it’s off putbacks, but his defense can help against both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Finally, keep an eye on Chris Boucher. He had some moments against Boston just by running the floor and being a lob threat.

For the Celtics, they’re going to need Enes Kanter to come up big again. His offensive rebounding was a key in some of the regular season matchups against the Raptors, and he was solid in the first round. He’ll play some against Marc Gasol, especially if Gasol starts going in the post. Beyond that, Kanter needs to be at least passable on defense, as the Raptors ballhandlers will look to attack him off the bounce.

Brad Wanamaker isn’t going to match Powell’s production off the bench, but he doesn’t have to. Wanamaker just needs to be solid in his 15-20 minutes per game behind Walker and Smart. He’ll have places to attack against Toronto’s defense, especially with his pullup jumper.

The Williamses and Langford need to show up when called upon for the Celtics. Both Grant and Robert Williams will have a chance to have roles in this series against the Raptors backup bigs. Grant Williams is a solid option against Ibaka, because he’s comfortable guarding on the perimeter. Robert Williams needs to play like Boucher and provide energy and to be a threat around the rim when Stevens calls his number

Finally, Langford is going to have moment in this series because Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are so good at getting opponents into foul trouble. All Langford has to do is compete defensively. Anything he provides on offense is a bonus at this point.

Advantage: Toronto. It’s closer than it might seem though. Powell and Ibaka are better than anyone Boston brings off the bench, but the Celtics depth has been more reliable during the re-start. If the Raptors roll up big games from their reserves, the Celtics are in trouble. Toronto set an NBA record with 100 bench points in the Game 4 clincher against Brooklyn. That surely caught Boston’s eye.

Coaching

Brad Stevens vs Nick Nurse

Boston Celtics vs Toronto Raptors Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

It’s the Coach of the Year against the coach everyone loves to praise in the playoffs. This is going to be a really fun chess match. Nurse is going to do some stuff on both ends that Boston didn’t see in any of their regular season matchups. And then, as the Celtics adjust to it, Nurse will change it up in-game. No coach is better at changing on the fly than Nurse is.

Stevens is going to have to make sure his team avoids the window dressing the Raptors do on both ends. They’ll do a bunch of movement on offense on the weakside, to distract from the simplicity they play with at the point of attack. The Celtics cannot get caught ball-watching in this series, but can’t overly focus on the off-ball deception either.

On the other end, it’s up to Stevens to diagnose what Toronto is doing defensively and to put Boston in position to attack it. The Celtics have some matchups in their favor, even despite being down Hayward. Look for Stevens to try and bleed those mismatches dry.

Advantage: Toronto. As good as Brad Stevens is, Nick Nurse won the title last year and is the Coach of the Year for a reason. He’s going to throw so much different stuff at Boston throughout the series. It’s going to be up to Stevens to find ways to ride the hot-hand and get the Celtics into mismatches they can pick on. More than anything, the sideline chess match may decide the series.

Prediction

Celtics in 7. If Gordon Hayward was healthy, Boston’s size advantage on the wing would have shown up more and the pick would have been Celtics in six. As it is, this is as about as evenly matched a series as you can ask for. Look for Boston to try and make this a little more of an offensive series than you might expect. The Celtics can outscore the Raptors with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. If Kyle Lowry is out or limited to start the series, that makes it even tougher for Toronto to keep pace.

Three things to keep an eye on:

  1. Can Boston create second-chance opportunities by hitting the offensive glass? They surprisingly beat up Toronto in this category during the regular season.
  2. On the other end, can the Celtics slow down the Raptors in transition? Whoever wins those two categories may end up winning the series.
  3. Who makes more shots out of Marcus Smart and OG Anunoby? In a series this tight, it might come down to something as simple as that.

The reason for Boston in 7? The Celtics can create offense easier than the Raptors can in late-clock and late-game situations. Toronto tends to bog down a bit, while Boston can ask Tatum, Brown or Walker to find a good shot. That’s the small difference in giving the Celtics the nod here

Mostly, we all win as basketball fans. These are likely to be close games between two very good teams and two very good coaches. We’ve asked for Boston vs Toronto for years, and finally 2020 delivered something we actually want.