When you go from an easy opponent to a difficult one, the respect level changes.
Even as someone who feared them all season when they had Ben Simmons, I did not believe in the 76ers one drop by the time the playoffs rolled around. I thought the Celtics would beat them in four or five games. I was not alone in not having much respect for the Sixers.
The Raptors? Different story. Reigning champs. Really good team. Great bench. Lot to respect there.
But there's respecting the opponent and there's thinking the opponent is better.
I don't think the Raptors, despite their better regular-season finish, are a better team than the Celtics. I think you can respect the Raptors and still say it would be a disappointment if the Celtics were to not beat them.
Chris Forsberg did a ranking of the players in this series, which I think is always a good exercise to do, especially in the NBA given the smaller rosters and importance of great players. In that ranking, the Celtics had three of the top four players:
- Jayson Tatum (duh)
- Kemba Walker
- Pascal Siakam
- Jaylen Brown
I think that's a fair order by Forsberg, even if Jaylen Brown could very well end up being the second-best player in the series. Still, I think most would agree those players make up the top four, which brings us to this: It doesn't matter how the rest of the list shakes out: If you have three of the four best players, you should win the series.
Now let's get to why the respect is there. Yes, they won last year (when they had a player they don't have anymore) and finished second in the East in the regular season (while losing three of four to Boston).
What worries me more than last postseason or the standings are two things: The Raptors defend aggressively and they're deep.
The Raptors were second in the NBA in defensive rating this season. This piece provides a really interesting look at how ever-changing Nick Nurse's squad is defensively, and how much tighter they defend than any other team.
So what works for Jayson Tatum in Game 1 might not in Game 2. You never really got the sense with Philly that they'd figured anything out.
There also wasn't really much of a threat off the bench with Philly. Yet while it was easy to expose Philly's lack of depth, Toronto is very deep. In Game 4 of the Nets series, the bench scored 100 freaking points. Norm Powell had two games of 20-plus points off the bench. Serge Ibaka would start on a lot of teams.
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So it's no surprise that a lot of Raptors filled out of the rest of Forsberg's list. Marcus Smart was the only other Celtic he had in the top 10, meaning most (six) of the players on the list were Raptors.
Still, we saw how the Celtics played the Raptors this season, including that absolute ass-kicking earlier this month in which they built a 40-point lead and blew out Toronto in the bubble. For the Celtics to lose to a team they played so well all season would be a failure.
Yes, the Gordon Hayward absence hurts, but even without Hayward, the Celtics have more premium talent than Toronto. It's close, but Toronto doesn't have a Tatum or a Walker. Plus, we don't know how Kyle Lowry (ankle) is going to fare.
This won't be a sweep. Maybe Toronto will even take Game 1 and give us all a scare, but the expectation here should be a Celtics series win. This isn't the same situation as the Bruins, who are playing a team that's better than them. The Celtics are better than the Raptors and should win.
See you in a couple weeks when I'm saying this same thing about the Bucks, because the Celtics should beat them, too.