The Toronto Raptors will tip off the Eastern Conference semifinals at 1 p.m. today against their division rival Boston Celtics.
It's going to be a very, very tight series as I broke down in a series preview yesterday and that should start with a fascinating Game 1.
Early this morning, there was some good news for Raptors fans as Kyle Lowry was deemed available and ready to go for Game 1. There won't be any sort of limit on Lowry during the game, according to Raptors coach Nurse, but Nurse will monitor how his lead guard looks throughout the game.
"He's been through a lot, he knows how to manage stuff pretty well," Nurse said of Lowry.
Here are three things to watch for:
1. Siakam vs. Tatum:
Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum enter the series as the top players for each team. During the pre-COVID regular season, they were virtual equals, averaging an identical 26.3 points with just over seven rebounds and approximately three assists per game each.
Since the pandemic, the two have gone in slightly different directions. Tatum is averaging 27 points per game on very efficient shooting in the playoffs while Siakam is averaging 20.8 on less efficient shooting than he showed in the regular season.
Usually in the playoffs, the team with the best player wins the series and if that's the case in this series, it'll come down to which of these two young stars looks more impressive over the next couple of weeks.
2. Switching and versatility
Both of these teams are extremely versatile on both ends of the court, switching defensively and using everyone to attack the basket. That versatility is part of what makes this series so interesting.
"We’ve got to guard and make things more difficult than they’re used to them being," Nurse said. "We’ve got to keep them off the glass, we’ve got to finish at the rim better than we have, we’ve got to knock down open shots. But then, these games a lot of time come down to that last four, five, six minutes, who makes the tough, smart, winning basketball players usually determines a series like this."
Expect the Raptors to try a bunch of different defensive schemes throughout the series, sending multiple different looks to confuse the Celtics. Even if it doesn't happen in Game 1, things will likely look very different when the series wraps up.
The Raptors have been resting for a week now, and while that's good news for Lowry and his ankle, it's been a long and emotional time since they last took the court, and sometimes rust develops during extended breaks.
"I think there was a moment of are we going to play or not going on, so like, it was kind of time to shut the engine off and take the keys out and kind of decide what’s happening," Nurse said. "It’s not awfully long, a week, right? I mean that could happen in a playoffs anyway, but I think just the circumstances of that week made it feel like about three."
The Raptors usually don't have issues coming out strong in big games, but they did not look good at all the last time they played the Celtics and it's possible that all the time off could make for a sloppy start to the game.
"We do come out a lot times guarding and playing hard and those questions are answered fairly early and if we don’t, we can usually find it at some point during there," Nurse said. "I don’t know if I’m ever super relaxed going into the opening tipoff about how we’re going to perform and today is certainly going to be an interesting one."