Big game tonight in Toronto as the Celtics threaten to take over the top of the Atlantic Division. The Raptors have been holding onto the division lead for the better part of the last three seasons. This game should have a playoff type feel to it tonight. It’s early in the season, but this game could have an impact on the standings as the season comes to a close in April. Boston lost the first meeting against Toronto, but they were without Isaiah Thomas. Game time starts just after 7:30 tonight, and this will be a can’t miss game.
Avery Bradley will miss his second straight game
Boston’s borderline All-Star, Avery Bradley will miss a second straight game with an Achilles strain. In his place Marcus Smart will take over the shooting guard duties. This is a significant change based on the last couple games Bradley missed. Smart has been doing a great job playing the role of facilitator, so he tends to play the point guard role with the starters. That means Isaiah essentially shifts over to the shooting guard role.
On December 30th, Bradley sat out and Smart played in his place. Thomas went off for 52 points. On January 7, Bradley was out and Smart started. Thomas put up 38 points. The most amazing stat that contrasts those great point totals was that Thomas has zero assists in both games. So, over the last two games where Smart started in Bradley’s place, Thomas had 90 points and 0 assists. Assists or no assists, when Thomas plays with Smart he plays more off the ball as a shooting guard, and shoot he does.
The Raptors take care of the ball and force turnovers
No team has turned the ball over less than the Raptors this season per game. Their turnover percentage is 2nd best, at just 11. 1%. On the other side of the court, the Raptors are almost as impressive. They are 3rd in the league in opponents turnovers, and 3rd in opponents turnover percentage, which is 14. 4%. The Raptors are great at turning their steals and blocks into points, as they rank 1st in points off turnovers with 19. 5 per game.
The Raptors get to the free throw line a lot
Another category the Raptors are at the top of the league in is free throw makes. They are 1st in free throw attempts per game with 26. 4, and 3rd in the free throw percentage. So, it’s no surprise they rank 1st overall in free throw makes per game. The Celtics are just behind Toronto in free throw percentage, as Boston ranks 5th, but Boston is towards the bottom of the league in takes and makes.
It’s the little things that help make winning easier
Boston has won a lot of games despite not winning a lot of the little battles. Whether it’s getting to the free throw line, getting points off turnovers, or winning the rebounding battles, the Celtics have had to overcome these subtle in game losses more than not.
Finishing the quarters on a strong note
Another little thing that can have a big impact on the game is being able to finish the quarters strong. The Celtics have struggled finishing quarters this season, at least the first three. Saturday, against New Orleans, Boston did a good job finishing the first quarter by turning an 8 point deficit with 2:00 left to a 3 point deficit with 0:17 left. But, the failed to get a shot off in those 17 seconds. Boston went on to do a good job finishing off the next two quarters by expanding their lead in the final two minutes of both the second and third quarter.
Saturday’s game was a positive sign, but it is still an area that needs to improved upon. Too many times this season Boston has failed to capitalize on key moments late in quarters. Turning a two point lead with 1:30 left in a quarter into a six point lead as the buzzer sounds is a great way to demoralize their opponents, and build momentum.
Last time these two teams played Toronto did a good job finishing the third quarter against Boston. With 2:15 on the clock, Derozan scored two points to put Toronto up 68 to 65. In the final two minutes the Celtics were 0-4 from the field, and 3-6 from the free throw line. The Raptors were 2-4 from the field, and 2-2 from the free throw line. The score heading into the fourth was 75-68. Boston managed to pull within 4 with just over a minute left in the game. Had the Celtics finished the third on a stronger note, they would have put themselves in a much better position to win the game.