After 25 years of circling each other, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics will finally face off in their first ever playoff matchup.
It's the matchup Raptors fans have been longing for for years. It's two of the top teams in the East, with two of the best coaches in the NBA, led by two exciting young stars. On paper, the teams are nearly identical and Vegas seems to agree, giving the Raptors only a slight edge as -140 favourites, implying about a 58% win probability.
The Celtics won the season series 3-1, outscoring the Raptors by a combined 28 points in the four games. While that might suggest the Celtics are the better team, it's tough to really take much from those games considering the first one was played 10 months ago, the second two were played without Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell, and the final one was just a total clunker from the Raptors during the seeding games.
Without further ado, let's get into it:
Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable heading into Game 1, but he practiced Saturday morning and it sounds like he'll probably play. Assuming he does, the Raptors will go with their usual starters: Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Siakam, and Gasol.
If Lowry can't go, the Raptors will have to shift Powell into the starting rotation. While Powell has looked good so far in the playoffs, making that move would cost the Raptors some of their depth strength.
On the other side, the Celtics will have to make do without Gordon Hayward, who is expected to miss the series with an ankle sprain. It's a big loss for Boston who will have to shift the less-offensively dynamic Marcus Smart into the starting rotation in Hayward's place. Without Hayward, Boston will start with Kemba Walker, Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis.
With Hayward healthy, I would have given the edge to Boston, but assuming Lowry is ready to go for Sunday, this is really a toss-up. The Celtics probably have the best player in the series in Tatum, who is averaging 27 points on nearly 49% shooting from the floor and 45% shooting from 3-point range. Usually, the team with the best player wins the series, but Siakam isn't too far behind Tatum and one through five these teams are about as even as possible.
The Raptors will run with seven or eight guys, depending on how close the series gets. With Lowry healthy, Powell and Serge Ibaka will be the first two guys off the bench for Toronto with Terence Davis II and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson mixing in as the eighth man from time to time.
This is an area the Raptors really have an edge over the Celtics who have seen their depth shrink with Hayward out and Smart moving into the starting lineup. Boston will now have to go with Brad Wanamaker and some combination of Robert Williams, Enes Kanter, Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye, and Romeo Langford off the bench.
This is where the Raptors can really take advantage in this series. Toronto's depth is as good as it gets in the playoffs and without Hayward, the Celtics can't really compete. Considering Tatum has made a +11 point difference when he's on the court for Boston, the Raptors will certainly need to win those minutes when he sits.
These two teams have two of the brightest young coaches in the NBA and I'd expect there to be a lot of tinkering as the series goes on.
Offensively, the Raptors like to get out and run in transition either off of turnovers or defensive rebounds. It's been the focal point of their offence all season and that might be a problem against the Celtics who who have the best transition defence in the league and only allow opponents to get into their transition offence in 13.8% of possessions, the fifth lowest in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass.
If Toronto can't run its transition offence, the Raptors might have some serious problems. They ranked 16th in the NBA in half court offence with 94.5 points per 100 half court possessions during the regular season, according to Cleaning the Glass, while Boston ranked fourth in the NBA in half court defence.
The Raptors' biggest offensive mismatch is probably in the post where Gasol and Ibaka have a size advantage on the 6-foot-8 Theis. It'll be crucial for Toronto to get their bigs going offensively and if Gasol can't do it, don't be surprised if Ibaka sees a boost to his minutes to provide some extra offensive firepower as the series continues.
On the other side, Boston's offence is pretty even across the board. I'd expect Anunoby — the Raptors' best wing defender — to defend Tatum for most of the series, something the Raptors shied away from in the regular season. Anunoby typically gets opponents' best offensive player and he's done a pretty remarkable job containing those guys this season.
"He’s got the desire, and it’s a sense of pride for him to go out there and play hard at the defensive end and guard the best players in this league," Nurse said of Anunoby. "He’s a big factor in this series on both ends."
The biggest offensive question mark for the Celtics is Smart, who has some very strange shooting splits this year. He shot just 34.7% from 3-point range, slightly below the league average of 35.8%, and really struggled on catch-and-shoot 3s.
Here's a look at his shooting breakdown this year and last year:
Assuming Smart doesn't flip the script in the playoffs, the Raptors should be content to let Smart fire away on catch-and-shoot 3s. When they miss, the Raptors will look brilliant. When they sink, Boston should win.
The Raptors will win if...
If Toronto's bench can significantly outperform Boston's, the Raptors should be in business. If not, it's going to come down to Siakam's ability to lead the way, something he hasn't shown much of in the playoffs, and the Raptors' ability to score in their half-court offence.
The Celtics will win if...
If Tatum is the best player in the series, don't be surprised if Boston reigns supreme. That's usually how it goes in the playoffs. Otherwise, it'll come down to Smart's 3-point shooting and the Celtics ability to stay even when Tatum is on the bench.
Prediction: Raptors in seven.
I've gone back and fourth on this for days and I might wake up tomorrow morning with a different feeling, but assuming Lowry is healthy, the loss of Hayward should give the Raptors the slight edge.