Two weeks ago, we described the Celtics injury-riddled stretch drive as an opportunity for Boston to play with house money, tinker with lineups, and develop a young roster even further. To positive-thinkers, it represented: “Brad, a half-injured roster, and a chemistry set.”
Man, was that an understatement. As the Celtics prepare for the first of two meetings with the Raptors this week, their Red-Claws-infused, house-money run should have the team pinching itself. Or would, if there weren’t so many players nursing sprains, headaches, and surgical scars.
What the Celtics have learned (so far)
1. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are legit 2-3 options on the floor. Anyone who’s watched them closely suspected that might be the case. But Boston’s post-all-star run with Kyrie Irving and Al Horford missing multiple games — 9 wins in their last 10 games when Brown plays — confirms it. Indeed, Brown and Tatum are now the top two clutch-shooters on the team — and on a growing sample size.
2. Greg Monroe and Aron Baynes — they can play. Even together, as we speculated on March 13 — wonderfully demonstrated in the twin-towers lineup Stevens occasionally employed against the Utah Jazz. Monroe has proven to have a little more agility than many had thought, and is a better passer than we remembered. Baynes hit his mid-range shot effectively enough against Utah to keep Rudy Gobert occupied.
3. The Stevens Effect — well, it works. Coach of the Year for Brad? Somehow that doesn’t seem like enough. A Nobel Prize might be more appropriate.
Pressure? It’s on Toronto
Saturday’s game? It’s unlikely to mean anything in the standings. We say again: Toronto will almost certainly be the #1 seed in the East.
But ultimately, matchups matter for reasons beyond playoff seeding. From here, it looks like this week’s double-header is much more important to East-leading Toronto, for a couple of reasons.
The lesser reason is, schedule-wise, Toronto’s two games with Boston are sandwiched around a meeting with Cleveland. Whatever the (non) impact on the standings, everyone wants to end the season on at least a we’ve-got-it-together note.
The greater reason is, the Raptors still have those April-May and late-game demons in their head. Really, the only way to vanquish them will be in the playoffs. For the regular season, as we noted on March 16, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have improved as clutch shooters. And the team has learned to share the load, even in crunch time.
The biggest factor Saturday and throughout the playoffs with the Raptors is — they got bench. Toronto can now do to Boston (and LeBron James, for that matter) what the Celtics grew used to doing with other NBA teams most of the year — wear ’em down with energy and length on defense, and go-ahead-and-chase-me shooters on offense.
Given Boston’s depleted roster, the Raptors are favored by a generous 6 1/2 points on Saturday. Even with a loose, house-money team, the real question is whether the Celtics can even hang that close. Don’t bet on it. But if this one should go down to the wire, it will be interesting to see DeRozan, Lowry, and the crew under pressure. And what Stevens can do with that wonderful chemistry set.
Notes and links
Celtics-Raptors and Celtics playoff ticket information here.
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