The first-ever postseason meeting between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors should be a treat. The C's routed the Raptors in the seeding round and won the season series 3-1, but the defending champions are a deep, talented team that will test Boston's mettle without Gordon Hayward.
Can the slim underdog Celtics upset the No. 2 Raptors to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals? NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely, Chris Forsberg and DJ Bean share their predictions.
A. Sherrod Blakely
The NBA restart 2.0 will be a plus for some teams.
The Boston Celtics aren’t one of them.
There was a possibility that Boston might begin their second-round series against Toronto with Raptors All-Star Kyle Lowry (ankle) out for what would have been Thursday’s Game 1 matchup that will now be played on Sunday afternoon.
Those extra days for Lowry to heal should be enough to where he’ll be comfortable returning to the floor now, taking away a potential break for Boston.
Of course, the defending champion Raptors bring more to the table than Lowry with All-Star Pascal Siakam along with Fred VanVleet and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.
The Celtics have their own health concerns to contend with. Gordon Hayward is out for the entire series following a Grade 3 ankle sprain.
Without Hayward, the Celtics must get more production from its Big Three of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown.
Of that trio, getting more from Tatum is huge.
Despite his impressive play in the regular season and the playoffs thus far, Tatum has averaged just 12.5 points per game in the four regular season matchups against the Raptors.
Bench play will also be a factor; one that’s decisively in Toronto’s favor with Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell leading the way. The Celtics hope their defensive-minded backups can hold their own and knock down a shot or two along the way to keep things relatively close.
The Celtics look and play like a team on a mission that’s far from over, one that should include them ending the Raptors’ reign as NBA champions.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
Since this is a space for predictions let us start with one thing we’re particularly bullish on: the Celtics and Raptors are playing all seven games in this series. In fact, we’re convinced that the two teams are so evenly matched that, if this was a best-of-133 game series, it would also take all 133 games to decide a winner.
Even the computers think this one is a tossup. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index essentially considers the series a coin flip. Homecourt advantage would have given the Raptors a slight edge but a neutral floor seemingly evens everything out based on season performance.
There’s simply too much talent and too much good coaching for this series not to be a nailbiter from start to finish. At first we thought the absence of Gordon Hayward might tip the balance towards Toronto, then the uncertainty of Kyle Lowry’s injury had us leaning back towards Boston. We vacillate, sometimes multiple times per day, trying to pick a winner.
Celtics Talk Podcast: After sweeping Sixers, do the Celtics have the three best players in the series vs. Raptors? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube
Here’s one more thing we’re certain of: Boston’s lopsided seedings-game victory didn’t tell us much about how this series will play out. The Raptors are prideful defending champs and won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. The Celtics are hellbent on proving that, a year after a disappointing second-round exit, they’re better built for their own title run.
Every game is going to have a different storyline. Maybe one night it’s Kyle Lowry locking up Jayson Tatum on Lowry’s one good ankle. Maybe the next night it’s Marcus Smart diving through a plexiglass partition pursuing a key late-game loose ball. One night it might be Nick Nurse rolling out a crazy halfcourt trap to key a Raptors comeback, the next Brad Stevens will sketch out a late-game ATO that gets Robert Williams a game-winning dunk.
Just buckle up. All the drama that both teams’ first-round sweeps lacked will be made up in this series. After a quarter century of waiting, the first Celtics-Raptors series proves to be worth the wait. So who actually wins this series? Ummm, well, (flips coin) …
Prediction: Celtics in 7
Toronto is good. They're deep. They defend very well. Yet at the end of the day, where's the top-end talent in this series? It's with the Celtics.
Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker are the two best players in this series, and you can bet they'll each have at least one game-sealing performance apiece. Jaylen Brown also dropped 30 on the Raptors on Christmas. You've got to think that Kyle Lowry will be a little healthier Sunday than he would have been Thursday, so let's assume Toronto is at close to full strength. A big challenge will be trying to make Fred VanVleet look like the Fred VanVleet of... any other year in his career. VanVleet has gone from a solid a player to a legit star. If the Celtics keep his points down, they can settle for Pascal Siakam and Lowry getting theirs. I get respecting the Raptors because they're defending champs (because they had Kawhi Leonard, who is not on their team anymore), but the Celtics crushed Toronto this season (3-1). Not having Gordon Hayward is going to hurt given Toronto's depth (Norman Powell is light years better than anything Philly brought off the bench), but the Celtics have shown they can handle the Raptors. I expect them to do it.
Prediction: Celtics in 6