The Boston Celtics have (rightfully) gained a reputation as one of the league's toughest teams, but they will undoubtedly be walking with their tail between their legs a bit heading into Wednesday's clash at TD Garden.
Now losers of two straight contests, Boston was defeated in embarrassing fashion by the Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday. Yes, those Bobcats. Playing without Paul Pierce, the Celtics flailed on the offensive end, scoring just 74 points as Gerald Henderson led the Bobcats to a 26-point victory.
The loss kept Boston in a tie with the Hawks for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference on a night where most expected the team to pull ahead.
Meanwhile, the playoff race is of no concern to the Raptors this season. Their dreadful 4-19 start put them behind the eight-ball in the race, though they have played above .500 basketball since. The return to solid play down the stretch will be of little help this season, but Toronto fully expects to make the playoffs in 2013-14, and games like this could be a litmus test.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of Wednesday's battle between Boston and Toronto.
(Note: All shot charts are courtesy of NBA.com)
Start Time: Wednesday, March 13, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: TD Garden in Boston
Team Records: Toronto Raptors (25-39) vs. Boston Celtics (34-29)
TV Info: CSNN
Live Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay Service)
Raptors Injury Report (via Raptors Media Relations Twitter):
Rudy Gay (back stiffness) will be a gametime decision tmrw in Boston. Andrea Bargnani (right elbow strain) did not make the trip. #Raptors— RaptorsMR (@RaptorsMR) March 12, 2013
Celtics Injury Report (via CBS Sports):
Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger remain out with season-ending injuries.
Key Storyline: What Happened in Charlotte?
The obvious answer to that question is that Paul Pierce was out of the lineup. Doc Rivers held the Celtics forward out of Tuesday’s matchup against the Bobcats—likely assuming they would win regardless—to keep him rested for the second half of this back-to-back.
Well, the result was pretty catastrophic. Boston scored only 28 points in the second half, shooting 27.6 percent as the team made as many field goals as turnovers (eight) in the final frames.
Now keep in mind that this came against a Bobcats team that ranks 28th in the NBA, giving up 103.5 points per game. With Boston’s playoff seeding hanging in the balance every single night, one could question whether Rivers made the wise choice going without Pierce.
Still, here is what you can take away from Boston’s loss to Charlotte on Tuesday: nothing.
Some would use this as an asinine attempt to feign interest in drawing conclusions about Boston’s loss to Charlotte on Tuesday. Just about every smart basketball fan or analyst since the Big Bang would tell you how flawed that logic is.
The Celtics lost on Tuesday because their offense cratered, and Gerald Henderson got this-will-probably-never-happen-again-level hot from the field. We’ve seen Boston’s offense be terrible plenty of times before—even in victories.
The team invariably finds a way to correct the course, oftentimes in the next game. Non-elite teams have bad games every once in a while in the NBA’s marathon season, so overreacting to Tuesday would be disingenuous—even against the Bobcats.
Key Matchup: Kyle Lowry vs. Avery Bradley
Speaking of calamitous trades, the "Curious Case of Kyle Lowry" only gets stranger by the day. Expected to take off following the Raptors’ jettisoning of Jose Calderon in the Rudy Gay deal, Lowry has been stuck on neutral offensively this season.
He’s averaging 11.1 points, 6.5 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game but is shooting only 41.1 percent since the trade. That’s obviously somewhat mitigated by his excellent three-point shooting, and he’s, overall, not too far off his expected averages.
Still, Lowry simply had not seemed right all season long. He’s battled both ankle and triceps injuries this season, leaving him both unable to get a true handle of his teammates’ tendencies and get back to playing his own brand of elite on-ball defense.
The latter has changed in a very big way since Calderon was shipped out of town. Toronto has been a mind-numbing 17.7 points per 100 possessions better on the defensive end when Lowry has been on the floor since the trade, per NBA.com. That represents the exact type of shift the Raptors were hoping for when they made the deal, and the offense has been coming around the past few games.
Lowry is averaging 11.2 points, 7.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds over the past five games while shooting nearly 46 percent from the floor. It’s a limited sample size, obviously, but Toronto will be looking for that brand of excellence down the stretch as it tries to become a playoff team next season.
Another small sample size alert: Lowry did quite well when guarded by Avery Bradley in the teams’ first matchup. The Celtics’ all-world defensive stopper has corralled just about any top guard one can think of, but Lowry was able to get off good shots and create for teammates.
Considering that defensive tenacity is still Bradley’s calling card—he’s still very much a (improved) work in progress on the offensive end—it will be interesting to see how he performs this time around.
If Bradley struggles to curtail Lowry’s presence, Jason Terry may wind up seeing some extended minutes as an offensive stimulant. The Celtics have learned how to hide Terry’s defensive deficiencies somewhat with their “manwich” defense, and we could see that more down the stretch—especially against a guard like Lowry.
X-Factor: Rudy Gay (And His Availability)
Arguably the most intriguing question is whether or not Raptors forward Rudy Gay will be in the lineup. He missed Sunday night’s victory over the Cavaliers with a back injury and is questionable to take on Boston on Wednesday.
There isn’t much incentive for Gay to play through injury for a non-contending team on the surface. The Raptors would very much like to keep their lottery pick this season, and Gay being on the floor ostensibly could hurt those chances considering the pick's weird protection.
That said, Gay's status as a face-of-the-franchise talent could very much rest with the remainder of this season and the Celtics are a perfect litmus test for every star.
In Gay’s first matchup with Boston on Feb. 6, the results weren’t so great. He shot just 8-of-24 from the field, including 1-of-7 from distance, en route to 25 points and 12 rebounds. It would be easy to dismiss Gay’s first result versus Boston as a calamity spurred by him only being with the Raptors for a short time.
That would be fair—if only anything had changed in the month-plus since that contest. Here is a little snapshot of how the Celtics “forced” Gay into taking bad shots:
Just about any Raptors fan will tell you that Gay has taken shots like that on a regular basis since heading up to the Great White North. Here is the part where I tell you that Gay is shooting 23.9 percent from three and has knocked down just 25 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet (per HoopData) as a member of the Raptors and you nod your head.
And even Gay’s “good” thoughts have had questionable results. Here he takes Brandon Bass to the hole in isolation, a smart move in theory, but fails to recognize the Boston collapse. The result is a wild shot that goes in, but that’s been a rarity for Gay’s time in Toronto.
It's been easy to pick on Gay due to his struggles. But, simply put, those aren't the type of looks a team needs its superstar taking. Gay is 26 years old. He should know those are bad shots by now.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Rudy Gay (or Terrence Ross, with DeRozan playing the SF spot)
PF: Amir Johnson
C: Jonas Valenciunas
PG: Avery Bradley
SG: Courtney Lee
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: Brandon Bass
The Celtics have had the Raptors’ number this season—with or without Gay. They took the first home-and-home of the teams’ four-game set during the 2012-13 season and have to be poised to strike following an embarrassing loss to Charlotte.
Though Lowry gives Boston's guards a tough test in the backcourt, it's just impossible to pick the Raptors at TD Garden. This will be a closer matchup than most expect, but the Celtics should come away with their third straight win over the Raptors.
Score Prediction: Celtics 101, Raptors 94