Some thoughts as the Boston Celtics make the turn for the back nine of their eight seeding games, starting with an Eastern Conference showdown against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night:
RESPECT THE RAPTORS
There’s a case to be made that the Toronto Raptors are the scariest team in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, this Kawhi-less version lacks the top-level superstar who typically helms most championship rosters but that has been offset by the overall collection of talent, strong coaching, experience gained last season, and — maybe most importantly — the disrespect the team has endured during its title defense.
Inside the bubble, where defense has been in short supply, the Raptors have limited opponents to 96.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s the best mark among bubble squads, one of only two teams below the century mark (Oklahoma City, 97.4), and one of only three south of 106. The bubble average is closer to 112.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which begins Friday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.
For sake of comparison, the Celtics and their inconsistent defense has allowed a staggering 114.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 17th out of the 22 teams in the bubble.
It’s that defense that makes the Raptors a particularly imposing foe. Toronto has absolutely smothered teams from the mid-range and beyond inside the bubble. Maybe intimidated by the length and defensive talent near the rim — with Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam patrolling there — opponents have settled for low-percentage, long-distance attempts. All while guys like Kyle Lowry make things uncomfortable on the perimeter.
The Celtics enter Friday’s game with the second-best offense in the bubble (121.9 offensive rating), but those numbers were juiced after Wednesday’s fireworks versus the lethargic Nets. Nothing will come nearly as easy against the Raptors and we’ll get a much better sense of whether Boston can put up points against an elite defense.
Are the Raptors scarier than the Bucks? You always want to have the best player in a series and Giannis Antetokounmpo certainly checks that box. But Milwaukee’s depth will be tested in the playoffs and needs its complementary pieces not to shrink on the big stage. The Raptors can feel confident that their championship-tested core won’t do that but they’ll need guys like Siakam to be great in the absence of a certified star.
IS THIS A SECOND-ROUND PREVIEW?
The Celtics enter Friday's action with a 98.6 percent chance of landing the No. 3 seed, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projections. And while much of the focus has been on who the team might draw in Round 1 (the Sixers were at 58 percent to be that opponent, with Indiana at 37.8 percent), those looking ahead will wonder if we’ll get our first-ever Celtics-Raptors playoff series.
There was a lot of buzz about whether Boston could surge for that No. 2 seed before the seeding games started. That fizzled quickly, in part because of the way the Raptors came flying out of the gate. The big question about a potential Boston-Toronto matchup is whether a neutral floor could negate the obvious advantage that the Raptors would have had as the higher seed. The Celtics have struggled mightily north of the border, but might things be a bit more palatable playing in the Orlando sunshine?
That’s not to say the No. 2 seed won’t aid the Raptors. Toronto is trending towards a first-round series with the Nets who, as Boston found out on Wednesday night, don’t play with any sort of consistency. Even with a recent upset of the Bucks — who rested their All-Stars in the second half of that game — it’s hard to see the Nets (or, potentially, even the Magic) pushing the Raptors. Meanwhile, Boston might have to scrap a bit with a team like Philadelphia or Indiana.
As Celtics fans mull which first-round opponent they’d rather see, injuries will probably dictate their desires. Even as Philadelphia has fought itself throughout the 2019-20 season, the 76ers were always a daunting foe because of their overall talent. Their size and length, in particular, has bothered Boston. But Ben Simmons injured his knee Thursday and his return timeline is unclear. If he is at all hindered in the postseason, the 76ers become a bit less imposing.
The Pacers have their own injury woes, with Domantas Sabonis departing the bubble. And, yes, the Celtics swept these Pacers last year. But Indiana has a healthy Victor Oladipo now and TJ Warren has been a flamethrower inside the bubble.
Regardless of how the seeding shakes out, the Celtics need to be playing better basketball than they have to ensure a lengthy run. The defense, in particular, needs to ratchet up to pre-quarantine levels for this team to have a chance.
ROMEO, OH ROMEO, THERE ART THOU ROMEO
Even though we've only seen rookie Romeo Langford in small doses this season, Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested early in the bubble that the lottery pick could be in the mix for minutes. And Langford showed why with his play as the first guy off the bench on Wednesday night.
Shortly after Langford checked in, he prevented a couple of Caris LeVert drives before LeVert fumbled the ball away on the baseline. A little while later, a driving Langford flipped a pass in the paint to Robert Williams for a dunk.
Langford has no shortage of offensive potential, but defense and making the right play are key for him right now in earning playing time. His minutes might be inconsistent because of Boston’s abundance of wing talent, but on nights like Wednesday when Jayson Tatum found himself in foul trouble, there will be opportunities for Langford to log time. Pair him with starters and Langford doesn’t have to try to do too much, just focus on defense.
Even that rare extended glimpse on Wednesday night is an encouraging sign of how Langford can aid the team. As he gets more time, even if that’s next season, his natural offensive abilities should emerge. But right now, he just needs to focus on playing hard defensively and anything else is a bonus.
Still, it’s clear that Langford has shimmied his way up the depth chart and could be one of the few rookies that Stevens is willing to trust in the playoffs.