After sweeping the poor Philadelphia 76ers and potentially ending “The Process,” the Boston Celtics, even without Gordon Hayward, are primed to take down the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Celtics won the regular-season series, but that means almost nothing. I thought that the Sixers winning the season series vs. Boston didn’t mean much, and a similar logic applies here. The fact of the matter is that most of the season series games occurred at least half a year ago, and Siakam wasn’t active for some of them. However, what I do find more relevant is the seeding game matchup when Boston smacked Toronto… and the national media didn’t seem to make a big deal out of it because they had recently anointed the Raptors as a legitimate championship contender. In that game, the Cetlics and their surplus of perimeter playmakers exerted their driving and shot-making skills on the Raptors’ highly-touted defense. Unfortuenly for Boston, they will be without one of those perimeter playmakers in Gordon Hayward for this series.
The title of the article is “No Hayward, No Problem,” but truth be told, his absence will be felt. He was playing very well in the seeding games and would likely be an X-factor in this series as an elite fourth option. With Siakam and Anunoby probably going to be assigned to Tatum and Brown, Hayward would’ve been given opportunities to attack lesser defenders and ease the workload of Tatum and Brown. In game 2 of the Sixers series, the first game without Hayward, rookies Grant Williams and Romeo Langford each answered the bell as coach Stevens gave them a lot of the Hayward minutes. Semi Ojeleye continued to only play spot minutes as the series went along, which was probably a good thing, as Brad simply played the starters a lot and mainly went with Wanamaker and Kanter off the bench.
Toronto also played a mostly seven-man rotation in their first-round series, although they aren’t afraid of getting some frisky minutes out of Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The ankle sprain of Kyle Lowry could be a big blow to the Raptors, as he’s been more-or-less their vocal and spiritual leader this season. I also think that he’s important to them because of the defensive energy he brings and how he could be employed to guard Tatum at points in this series to try to mess with his rhythm. If Toronto is without Lowry for at least the start of the series, that bodes well for Boston.
I say all that to say this: I buried the lead. The Celtics will win this series because they have the best player in the series in Jayson Tatum along with a guy in Kemba Walker who is getting his swagger back and can be the secondary scoring option while also being a change of pace guy who can quickly flip the momentum of a game. The gap between Pascal Siakam and Jaylen Brown isn’t as large as people think. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter can hang with and perhaps even outplay Toronto’s big men in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Oh, what’s that Nick Nurse? You’re going to put Chris Boucher in to have a weird and athletic big man presence? Ok, Timelord, get in there. Fred Vanvleet is scary alright, and Norman Powell can become a heat-check guy, but Wanamaker has been playing with more edge and confidence, and I’m sure Brad can squeeze some solid defensive minutes out of a Romeo or a Semi. Plus, the X-factor of all X-factors still resides on the Celtics in the form of Marcus Smart, who continues to make winning plays such as this one from game 3 against Embiid:
The Raptors are no joke. They have defended the title with poise and purpose. But the Celtics are ready to jump these dinosaurs and book themselves a date back in the Eastern Conference Finals.