By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics were far from perfect in their four-game sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. They didn’t have to be, with the upper hand in overall talent against a Philly team playing without Ben Simmons.
But the Celtics are going to have to flirt with perfection every night in the second round if they want to beat the defending champion Raptors. Toronto is one of the deepest teams in the league, and they proved that by winning 53 games during the regular season despite the loss of Kawhi Leonard in free agency.
Yes, the Raptors lost their Finals MVP of a year ago and still went out and had one of the best records in the NBA. They’ve looked pretty darn formidable in the NBA bubble as well, losing just one game since arriving in Orlando.
That loss was an absolute blowout at the hands of the Celtics, a team that went 3-1 against the Raptors during the regular season. But the Celtics know regular season meetings mean very little now that they’re playing on the NBA’s real stage.
Just look at Boston’s sweep of the 76ers, a team that bested them three times in the regular season. The 76ers were without their star playmaker in Simmons, but the C’s thumped them the first two games of the series and then escaped with wins in Games 3 and 4. They didn’t play Celtics basketball for long stretches in the last two games, but won because they made plays when they needed to, and had the better overall roster.
They’ll have very little room for error against Toronto. Like the Celtics, the Raptors are a great defensive team. They make opponents work every trip down the floor, with a dominant front court of Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol clogging the middle. Daniel Theis is going to have to resemble an entire pack of seals to clear space for his driving teammates this series.
Toronto’s size will be the biggest issue for Boston. Siakam and Gasol can dominate the paint, and the Celtics really don’t have anyone to measure up with them. It’ll get even more difficult when Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell make an appearance off the bench. The Celtics had their hands full with one giant against Philadelphia, and it’s only going to get tougher against Toronto.
The backcourt is just as tough, with Kyle Lowry Toronto’s de facto leader. He’s a cold-blooded scorer and franchise icon, and has a derriere that lets him clear his own space when attacking the rim or boxing out for a rebound. We’ll see how his ankle is after he turned it on Sunday, because losing the Raptors losing Lowry would change quite a bit about the series. But his running mate in the backcourt, Fred VanVleet, brings his own knack for knocking down big shots, and will pose lots of problem for Boston’s wings.
Add in a bench that is among the best in the NBA — fresh off a 100-point performance in Game 4 — and the Celtics can’t afford many, if any, missteps if they want to reach the Conference Finals.
Boston knows a first-round sweep usually doesn’t mean much when the next round tips off, something they learned last year when they were embarrassed by the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semis after sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the first round. They’re going to spend the next few days figuring out what went wrong during those moments of leakage against Philly, and make sure they don’t happen again against Toronto. The Celtics were their own worst enemy during those brief slumps, and if they have to play against themselves in addition to the Raptors, this next matchup won’t be a very competitive series at all.
Jayson Tatum won’t be able to afford an off night this time around. Kemba Walker is going to have to cut down some big trees when he find his way to the paint. Jaylen Brown is going to have to step up even more on both ends of the floor, and Marcus Smart is going to have to add Raptor Wrangler to his resume.
This series is going to be all about defense, something the Raptors didn’t see much of in the first round. If the Celtics can lock down on defense and steal Game 1 on Thursday night, it will vastly improve their odds to win the series. Getting behind Toronto, whether it’s in a game or in the series, is not a desired spot to be in. And unlike Philly, the battle-tested Raptors aren’t going to back down and turtle when they find themselves in a hole.
It’s going to be an absolute rock fight, and Boston has to make sure they’re the ones throwing the stones and not tripping over them. They passed their first tests in Games 3 and 4 against the 76ers, showing they can win games when not everything is going right.
But the Celtics need to make sure just about everything goes right over the next two weeks if they want any shot at beating the defending champs.