Despite their quarter-century existence, the Toronto Raptors have never faced the Boston Celtics in a playoff series. That seems likely to change when the NBA resumes play in Orlando.
The Celtics and Raptors project to land the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the East, putting them on a collision course for a conference semifinal matchup.
Yes, the uncertainties of the bubble environment make that less of a slam dunk than most years — and let’s cross our fingers an unexpected shutdown wouldn’t deprive us of the pairing yet again — but Boston and Toronto clearly slot among the elite in the East.
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Who wins a best-of-seven series between these two Atlantic Division foes? The elimination of home-court advantage removes maybe the biggest advantage one of these teams could own, so much so that Boston has only limited motivation to make a surge for that No. 2 seed during the eight seeding games leading up to the bubble playoffs.
Even without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this season, the Raptors are battle-tested as defending NBA champions. They won’t be fazed by the moment. The Celtics’ young core, though, has also played an awful lot of playoff basketball, while Kemba Walker will have no shortage of motivation despite being a postseason spectator for much of his time in Charlotte.
All of which leaves Celtics-Raptors as seemingly a coin flip. In fact, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, which gives the matchup an astounding 84 percent chance of happening, forecasts Boston with the slightest of edges in the matchup (52 percent to win the series).
Yes, the smallest of advantages could swing this series. Maybe it’s Walker’s health. Maybe it’s whether Jayson Tatum or Pascal Siakam emerges as the more impactful young star. Maybe it comes down to bench play. Maybe it's coaching and whether Brad Stevens or Nick Nurse can push the right buttons in an unprecedented environment.
The Celtics won two of the three head-to-head matchups during the regular season, emerging in Boston’s home opener and a Christmas Day showdown. The Raptors got revenge in late December while spoiling a Kemba Walker 30-point night.
One thing is certain: The Raptors had an elite defense, ranking second in the NBA behind only the Bucks while allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions before the season paused.
Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol provide a sturdy back line that can fluster Celtics players near the rim and force the Celtics to rely heavily on jump shots. Boston’s offense will have to be particularly crisp and it must avoid playing a half-court game against the Raptors.
PREDICTIONS FOR CELTICS-RAPTORS PLAYOFF SERIES
Chris Forsberg: Maybe the biggest advantage of the restart for the Celtics is not having to play any of the East's top dogs on their home floor in potential playoff matchups. Milwaukee and Toronto could have really benefited from that edge — especially in any seven-game series — but now one of the keys will be how role players, who typically feed off home crowds, perform in the quiet Disney bubble.
The Celtics, if healthy and playing to their potential, have a slight overall talent edge here and should steal the series on a neutral site. But a seven-game tango seems inevitable with these two evenly matched foes.
Prediction: Celtics in 7 games
A. Sherrod Blakely: The Kemba Walker-Kyle Lowry duel will be one of the best we’ll see in the playoffs. In any other year, whoever has home court would be the favorite in this series. But ultimately, Boston has more big guns offensively than the Raptors and that more than anything else will determine the winner of this series.
Prediction: Celtics in 7 games
DJ Bean: I didn't believe in the Raptors when they had Kawhi (smart, DJ), so I'm sure as hell not going to believe in them with just Siakam and Lowry.
Prediction: Celtics in 5 games