The Eastern Conference is about to get real spicy.
The first round of the Playoffs in the East has been severely underwhelming to watch for the most part. Almost all of the top four teams in the East swept their opponents (except for the Bucks, who couldn’t beat the legendary Game 1 Magic). Even the matchups that were supposed to be close (Heat-Pacers and Celtics-76ers) ended in a brutal beatdown.
But now, we’re finally treated to two potentially entertaining matchups that would more than make up for the snoozefest last round. On one side of the bracket, we have the Jimmy Buckets and the Miami Heat facing off against Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks in a grind-it-out, defensive slugfest. On the other end, two of the most versatile teams on both ends of the floor duke it out as Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors battle Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics.
However, with the way the Raptors and Celtics are playing right now, we might have another curb stomp on our hands. After a complete dismantling of the defending champs in the first game, Boston took Game 2 102-99 against Toronto behind Marcus Smart’s hot shooting in the fourth quarter. Here are some trends in the series so far.
Neutralizing the Spice
Siakam and the Raptors aren’t looking so hot right now.
In the first two games of their second-round series, nearly everyone in the Raptors have been struggling, but Siakam has been downright atrocious. He’s averaging 15 points per game, sure, but he’s doing so with awful efficiency. He’s shooting an abysmal 34.4% from the field and 14.3% percent from 3. As a result, he’s sporting a -11 +/- rating, one of the worst marks in the lineup. For a guy who’s quite clearly the number one option for their team, to say this is bad would be a huge understatement.
Maybe people expected Spicy P to be the go-to guy in the Playoffs and are shocked that he’s not performing as expected. In reality, however, this is sadly the norm for him. Siakam has struggled against better and more disciplined teams who can match up well against his size and plug any holes quickly.
Even last year, he struggled in their first series against Orlando, a mediocre defensive team, when he was guarded by the long-limbed Jonathan Isaac. He eventually did overcome that this season, but Raptors fans have to hope that he can do the same against the disciplined Boston squad in a matter of days.
Other players need to step up, obviously. Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell need to make their shots. Marc Gasol has to TRY and shoot. BUT, if Siakam wants to save himself and the Raptors from a repeat of the DeRozan era, he needs to get his stuff back together. Granted, he’s still fairly young and new to this lead guy role (case in point: that out-of-bounds turnover late in Game 2). But Toronto needs him to start making his shots if they want to have a chance in this series, especially with Tatum making such a big impact on both ends for Boston.
The Marcus Smart effect
Boston, on the other hand, has been getting everything they need from their key stars.
Tatum has been magnificent, averaging 27.5 points in the first two games with a near 50/50/100 shooting split. Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker haven’t exactly been as efficient as JT (Brown’s at 35.5% from the field and three-point range, while Walker’s at 41.1% and 33.3%), but that’s hell of a lot better than most players on the Toronto bench. Walker is still quarterbacking the Boston offense pretty well despite his shooting woes, and has shown in Game 2 that he can still get a bucket during crunch time.
The biggest factor, however, in why the Celtics have busted out into a 2-0 lead is none other than Marcus Smart. Smart has been on a tear in the first two games, averaging 20 points per contest on 52% shooting from the field and an outstanding 55.5% from beyond the arc. He capped this off with a streak of five made threes to start the fourth quarter of Game 2. His shooting came at the right time, as the Celtics were down eight and he hit all those shots with varying levels of difficulty. This allowed his team to mount a mini-comeback and control the game completely.
Of course, no mention of Smart would be complete without his defense. He is one of the best defenders in the league, despite his relatively short height at 6’2. He’s incredibly switchable against guards, wings, and even the occasional big, and his relentless one-on-one pressure makes many scorers uncomfortable. Add to that his knack of knocking the ball away (3.2 deflections in the regular season, 2.3 in the playoffs) and you have an All-Defense candidate in your hands.
But in this series, Smart’s offense is going to be more impactful than his defense. He’s a primarily a defense-oriented guy for the Celtics and teams are likely to be game-planning around Smart’s defensive capabilities. But if he can’t pull his own weight on offense, if he can’t make his shots and sometimes create his own, he’ll be an exploitable piece for opposing teams.
Time-Lord and the Coaching Chess Match
Brad Stevens and Nick Nurse are two of the best coaches in the league. There’s no doubt about that. So heading into this series, everyone was looking at how the chess match between the two masterminds would play out.
So far, Stevens seems to be winning, and not just because they’re up 2-0.
To prove this, we need to look at one player in particular: the “Time-Lord” himself, Robert Williams III. Williams is an athletic big who has a simple playstyle: rim-run, get rebounds, and block shots. In Game 2, he played 18 minutes and scored 11 points on 5 shots (a perfect 100% from the field).
Now the reason why he’s integral to the Celtics game-plan is simple: Stevens sees him as a counter to Toronto’s bigs. Nurse likes to funnel all shots to the paint, where one of his two All-Defense bigs in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol can protect the paint. However, both of these bigs have severe lateral quickness issues due to their age. Time-Lord’s agility in both rim-running and rebounding has posed problems for Ibaka and Gasol.
Nurse had countered this smartly by having the equally agile Chris Boucher match Williams’ minutes. The problem, though, is that Nurse put Boucher in perhaps a bit too much, even when Williams was out. Other bigs can easily push the lanky Boucher of the way, which brings another set of problems for Toronto.
Stevens has made his first move. Now it’s up to Nurse if he can find the perfect response. If he doesn’t, the former Coach of the Year can easily checkmate the reigning Coach of the Year.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that no leads are safe in the Playoffs.
Golden State came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Thunder in the 2016 West Finals, only to then infamously blow the same lead against LeBron James and the Cavs in the Finals. This year, the Nuggets overcame the same lead to advance to the second round against the Jazz. Hell, even the Raptors themselves have been in the same boat before, falling 0-2 to the Bucks in the ECF last year before sweeping the next four on their way to the Finals.
As it stands, though, Boston doesn’t seem to have the same weaknesses the other teams had. The ball is in Toronto’s court now. What they do in Game 3 will decide if we get to see an intense, blow-for-blow series like we expected or another absolute dud.