The Boston Celtics are still in control of their own destiny, despite losing to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. As things stand, the Celtics need one game to clinch the second seed, either by winning one themselves or by the Sixers dropping one, whichever comes first.
However, as we all know, this Celtics team likes to take care of business; that’s why a rotation missing Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams ran a genuine Eastern Conference threat close, losing by just two points. Now, on the second night of a back-to-back, the Celtics will be looking to wrap up their seeding, giving them some additional freedom for the final two games of the regular season later this week.
The Toronto Raptors shouldn’t be taken lightly, though. Sure, they’re not a contending team and haven’t had a season to write home about, but they’re young, well-coached, and boast a ton of length and athleticism in their frontcourt. As such, here are three things to look for in Wednesday’s game.
Let them fly from deep
Only two teams in the league have done a worse job at defending the three-point line this season than the Raptors, as they’ve allowed their opponents to shoot 38.1% from beyond the arc. Given Boston’s propensity to fire away early and often, the Celtics could find themselves pushing the boundaries from deep, especially if they see some fall early.
Of course, as we’ve seen at times this year, giving the Celtics free reign from deep isn’t always the best option, as they can sometimes become too over-reliant on hitting home run after home run. What we know by now is that the Celtics feed off momentum, so regardless of how poor the Raptor’s three-point defense has been this season if the shots aren’t falling, it will be on Joe Mazzulla to change their offensive outlook.
Still, given the amount of shooting talent throughout the Celtics roster, coming up against a team that has seriously struggled to stop teams from getting their way will have everyone licking their lips at a potential high-scoring night.
Keeping the minutes down
We’re so close to the end of the regular season that we can see the finish line and smell the food vendors lining the streets as the crowd awaits us to cross that threshold. Coming into this game, having played the night before, and traveled, the Celtics would be good to instill strict minute restrictions on their core rotation.
Everybody likes winning. And seeding is still very much in play. Yet with the playoffs looming in the distance, and much bigger goals taking precedence, now is the time to start wrapping your primary guys in bubble wrap and prioritizing health. Last season, Boston entered the postseason without Robert Williams, and even though he returned midway through the first round, he never found his best form during their run to the NBA Finals.
This year, the Celtics have a chance to head into the opening night of the playoffs with a complete rotation, and that should be far more important than winning each of their last three games — especially when the Sixers could do Boston’s job for them by losing one of their upcoming contests.
The Coaching Battle
When discussing the playoffs in recent weeks, one thing that I’ve continued to ponder is how Mazzulla is going to fair in a seven-game series against some of the elite coaches in the NBA. Right now, there is a potential first-round matchup against the Miami Heat and Erik Spoelstra on the cards. While Miami doesn’t pose a significant threat from a talent standpoint, Spoelstra is among the most gifted coaches in the league, which means Mazzulla will need to be at his best throughout the series if he wants to outwit his counterpart.
A two-game mini-series against Nick Nurse will be a good indicator of how Mazzulla and his coaching staff will fair when facing some of the trickier coaches in the league, especially in the second game when both sides have made adjustments and look to muddy things up in the half-court.
It will be interesting to pay attention to the coaching battle over the next few days, making note of substitution patterns, defensive scheme changes, and what type of actions Mazzulla utilizes to negate the Raptors' length when pressuring driving lanes. Furthermore, Nurse is a master at ruffling feathers on the sideline, so seeing how Mazzulla keeps his players focused and motivated will also be another good indicator of what to expect once the pressure cooker of the playoffs is underway.
I’ll keep this short and sweet. Win or lose, just come away from the game healthy and on the back of a good performance. Everything else will sort itself out, but now isn’t the time to be going 100 mph on every possession. Let’s get to the playoffs well-rested, full of confidence, and ready to go one step further than last year.