Celtics

Celtics-Raptors preview: Can C's keep closing the gap?

Celtics-Raptors preview: Can C's keep closing the gap?

TORONTO – Tuesday night losses by both Boston and Toronto took away the potential for tonight to be a winner-takes-over-the-East battle.

Nonetheless, its significance is still great.

The Celtics (53-24) come in trailing Toronto (55-22) by two games in the East with four to play after tonight.

Even if the Raptors are able to hold on to the top spot, a Celtics win tonight would be a major blow to Toronto and boost for Boston.

A Boston win would give the Celtics the head-to-head series three games to one, which would include a rare road win against Toronto team that has won at home like no other team in the East this season (31-7).

In addition, it would be the second win in less than a week for the injury-riddled Celtics over a Toronto team that at full strength.

And if the two were to meet in the playoffs, it wouldn't be until the Eastern Conference finals when Boston would likely have its top scorer (Kyrie Irving) and top defender (Marcus Smart) back in the lineup.

Combine their return with a more confident group of Boston role players and you have the makings of a Celtics team that would be well-positioned to continue the trend we’ve seen in the East where the No. 2 seed fares better than the top overall seed.

But for the Celtics, playoff seeding takes a back seat to the team’s health, which has been an issue all season.

The latest victim of the injury bug is Terry Rozier, who did not play in Boston’s 106-102 loss at Milwaukee on Tuesday because of a left ankle sprain.

Prior to the game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Rozier was about “80 to 85 percent” healthy but would not return to the floor until he closer to being fully healthy.

“We’re not playing him if he’s not better than that,” Stevens said. “Obviously with...our health situation being what it is, Terry’s gonna have a lot of minutes ahead. So we want him to feel great.”

And for Boston, feeling great is completely independent of winning tonight and potentially winding up with the best overall record in the East for the second year in a row.

Still, as important as good health is to this team going into the playoffs, Jaylen Brown is among the Celtics who isn’t ready to concede the top spot in the East to Toronto just yet.
 
“I feel like we’re the number one team,” Brown said recently. “The number one seed would be fitting, but we have to just come out and play basketball. There’s a lot of teams that think otherwise; Toronto is one of them.”

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Celtics in negotiations with Marcus Smart on four-year deal

Celtics in negotiations with Marcus Smart on four-year deal

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics have been saying for weeks that Marcus Smart is their top priority during this free-agency period. 
 
Well, it looks like those words are starting to lead to the kind of action Smart and his camp have been looking for all summer. 
 
The Celtics and Smart’s agent Happy Walters are reportedly in "serious" talks about a four-year deal that would pay Smart a salary that would reportedly total somewhere in the $46-50 million range -- similar to the range in which Boston was negotiating with Smart prior to the start of this past season. 
 
While Smart’s camp went into the summer seeking a deal that would average closer to $15 million per season, league executives have consistently maintained Smart’s value was $10 million-$12 million annually. 

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Because of that figure and Smart being a restricted free agent, teams were reluctant to put forth an offer sheet that they assumed the Celtics would match unless it was north of $15 million per season -- an extremely high price for even such a talented role player as Smart. 
 
With Kawhi Leonard being traded from San Antonio to Toronto, that all but eliminated the Celtics from making any kind of roster-altering move this summer. 
 
And because of that, it made more sense to start engaging Smart’s camp in working out a multiyear deal to keep the veteran guard in the fold for years to come. 
 
A league source anticipated a deal would get done quickly for a number of reasons with one that stands out more than the others. 
 
“They want him back, and he’s made it clear he wants to come back,” the source told NBC Sports Boston. “Both sides have a better idea of what his value is, in this market now and I think they can come to a number that works for both of them.”
 

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Blakely: Even with Kawhi in Toronto, Celtics still the team to beat in East

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Blakely: Even with Kawhi in Toronto, Celtics still the team to beat in East

BOSTON -- The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is nearing an end with reports that the estranged San Antonio star will be traded to the Toronto Raptors for a package centered around the Raptors’ all-time leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan
 
As good as DeRozan has been for the Raptors, acquiring a healthy Kawhi Leonard makes them a better team on several levels. 
 
But that improvement isn’t enough of a power shift to move Boston off the top of the Eastern Conference food chain. 

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Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA right now, a perennial All-Star when healthy. But his health is one of the many questions out there. He missed all but nine games last season, primarily because of a quad injury. 
 
He's a significant upgrade defensively for the Raptors, which would more than compensate for whatever they lose in terms of offensive punch with DeRozan’s departure. 
 
Toronto's addition of Leonard still doesn’t change the fact that Boston has the deepest roster in the East, headlined by a triumvirate of All-Stars (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford) with an emerging cast of superstars led by Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, who finished third in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting. 
 
Throw in a solid bench with strong coaching and a connected front office, and it adds up to a team that has every reason in the world to believe it’ll be the last one standing in the East, regardless of what moves are made by others. 
 
More than anything, Toronto getting Leonard makes the East far more interesting in addition to providing the Celtics with yet another legitimate challenger in the conference. 
 
Philadelphia, by all accounts, looks to be the next best team in the East this season, with Indiana, Milwaukee and the Raptors not too far behind. 
 
Adding Leonard to the mix gives Toronto hope of separating itself from that crowded middle class. But it still leaves the Raptors short of being on the same level as Boston. 

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 For starters, Toronto is adding a player who -- for now, at least -- doesn’t want to be there. 
 
The only assurance they will have is that he’ll be on the roster for this upcoming season. He hits free agency in the summer of 2019 and has reportedly been leaning heavily towards returning to his California roots and playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, who signed LeBron James earlier this month.
 
One of Toronto’s strengths has been the chemistry between DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. There's no guarantee that can replicated by swapping out DeRozan for Leonard. 
 
Also, Toronto has a new coach in longtime assistant Nick Nurse. His strength in the league has been that of a good development coach, which is more in line with a team that's rebuilding rather than one trying to re-tool for another run towards Eastern Conference supremacy. 
 
Regardless of this trade, the Raptors were going to head into this season with lots of questions after getting swept by Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs and then firing Dwayne Casey (who was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year shortly after his dismissal).
 
There’s no denying Leonard’s talent makes a deal like this palatable to many, but the Raptors did more than just trade away a talented player. 

DeRozan was arguably their first star, and at no point in his career did he even hint that he wanted out of Toronto. It was, in fact, just the opposite: DeRozan made it clear, both publicly and privately, that he wanted to spend his entire career with the Raptors. 
 
But that’s not going to happen now. 
 
If Leonard stays healthy and plays at the level we've grown accustomed to seeing him at in the past, the trade makes Toronto a better team on many levels. It certainly closes the gap some between the Raptors and the Celtics.
 
But Boston is still the team to beat in the East, a position that no one trade -- not even one that lands Kawhi Leonard -- is going to change. 

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