By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
After a 112-94 romp in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Boston Celtics have outscored the Toronto Raptors by 40 points across two games in the bubble. Some early hot shooting and an aggressive approach on Sunday put the Green in front early and they never looked back. Meanwhile, Toronto’s leading scorer Pascal Siakam has shot 10-for-31 in the two meetings between the teams, while Fred VanVleet is just 7-for-30 (3-for-17 from downtown).
It almost certainly won’t be this easy going forward. We know that by looking backward. The Milwaukee Bucks had a 2-0 series lead over Toronto in last year’s conference finals and then lost four straight.
Sure, that Raptors team had Kawhi Leonard, with Siakam and VanVleet riding shotgun. VanVleet averaged just 9.7 points for the series. But he also torched the Bucks over the last three games, going an unfathomable 14-for-17 from behind the arc. Both he and Siakam made things miserable for the top-seeded Bucks on both ends of the floor.
Surveying the playground that is a seven-game series, Brad Stevens knows an afternoon on the slide can easily turn into a ride on the seesaw. He’s been positively Belichickian in assessing his team’s success against a team that finished with the second-best record in the NBA. Following the win three weeks ago, Stevens quipped, “this game won’t mean anything in a couple of weeks.”
After Game 1: “We won one game.”
Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?
Acknowledging Toronto’s usual defensive prowess (second-best defensive rating in the regular season) and coach Nick Nurse’s ability to game plan, the Celtics still need all the offensive firepower they can get. While the loss of Gordon Hayward didn’t impact Sunday’s proceedings, it certainly could going forward.
Despite Boston fans’ dismissal of the veteran as fragile, overpaid, and/or redundant on a team with wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Hayward did pour in 17 a game on 50 percent shooting this year. His absence leaves a void.
In Game 1, freshly minted starter Marcus Smart filled it with 21 points.
The sixth-year guard had eight 20-point outings during the regular season. But he also had 14 outings in which he scored in the single digits and shot less than 30 percent from the field. To say that Smart shouldn’t be relied upon for consistent, efficient scoring isn’t a knock on the Flower Mound, Texas native; it’s just data.
Can Boston get by the Raptors if Siakam and VanVleet are clicking and Smart isn’t? The margin for error is likely smaller than Game 1 indicated.
The burning question entering Boston’s first round series against the 76ers was how the Green would handle Philly’s size. Turns out, it wasn’t a huge problem. Daniel Theis got his minutes, Enes Kanter posted a tidy 7.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 17.4 minutes and was plus-35 over the final three games, and Stevens went to Grant Williams for a change of pace.
But Toronto’s bigs are nothing like Joel Embiid, and the head coach’s rotation reflected that in Game 1. When Theis ran into early foul trouble, he called Robert Williams’ number.
While the Timelord looked out of his depth in limited action against Philly, Williams has now scored 20 points (on 9-of-10 shooting) and ripped down 9 rebounds in a little over 30 combined minutes in his last two matchups with Toronto. His offensive and defensive versatility has created problems for the Raptors on both ends.
After the game, Stevens praised all of his big men, even the one (Kanter) who didn’t play. While being stapled to the pine is probably less than ideal for Kanter, it means Williams is giving Boston meaningful minutes – somewhat of a best-case scenario following the Texas A&M product’s injury-riddled sophomore season.
Coming Up Next
The C’s and Raptors face off in Game 2 at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Pregame coverage starts at 5 p.m. on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.