The Boston Celtics will be missing Isaiah Thomas for the most important game of the young season against the Toronto Raptors
The Boston Celtics have been doing a solid job with the third best record in the Eastern conference. The problem is that they are yet to have a signature win and have yet to establish consistent play on both ends, with or without injuries. With their showdown against the Toronto Raptors, they have an opportunity to get their best victory of the season.
The Celtics have done a great job against the Spurs and the Rockets since they got healthy, but ultimately failed to secure the victory. Beating the Raptors puts them just one game behind, and becomes an important win in tie breaker scenarios. Unfortunately, the Celtics are not going to be at full strength in this one. Isaiah Thomas was the last of the top players on the team to get hurt, and he will be taking the same approach as both Jae Crowder and Al Horford, playing it safe.
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The Celtics did just have their biggest win of the season without Thomas against the Magic, but the Raptors are too great of a challenge to put any weight into that. While the offense will never be the same without Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley are exactly who the Celtics need against one of the best back courts in the NBA.
The Celtics cannot anticipate another game from their bench like the last, so the starting unit will certainly need to take on more offensive responsibility. Bradley has been comfortable with the ball in his hands, but Horford is now easily the best offensive option.
Horford needs to be the offensive instigator and he needs to be aggressive. Horford has proven that he will always have an impact with his passing, but they will not be able to score enough in a potentially mucked up game against the Raptors if Horford does not step up.
The Raptors play at the eight slowest pace in the league, and they will certainly attempt to get the Celtics out of rhythm. Without Thomas there to generate offense when they are out of rhythm, they need to be able to lean on Horford to manufacture points and opportunities for them.
Defensively, it will be an interesting task for the Celtics. They have much less to worry about in the front court and Horford and Amir Johnson have done a solid job protecting the paint. Jonas Valanciunas is not the biggest concern with his scoring. The priority on him will need to be limiting offensive rebounds. The Raptors may not allow the Celtics to get their normal amount of opportunities because of pace, making those second chance opportunities even more important.
On defense, this game really comes down to Smart, Bradley and Crowder. Smart and Bradley could each get turns against Kyle Lowry and any one of them could take a shot at guarding DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan’s ability to generate contact and get to the rim could be the one thing that hurts Smart the most on him. Smart has played with relentless aggression on that end, and that puts a lot of weight into how close the referees will be calling them. With a player as good as DeRozan at getting to the line, Smart could run into some trouble.
Jan 20, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) handles the ball as Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) tries to defend during the fourth quarter in a game at Air Canada Centre. The Toronto Raptors won 115-109. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Ball movement is not necessarily what the Celtics need to be most concerned about. The Raptors are bottom 10 in the league with just 16 assists per game. The Celtics know they can be disruptive, but that is not how the Raptors will attack them.
The Celtics need to be able to trust their on ball defenders and if they can hold their own without help, they should not have to worry about being broken down by ball movement.
The Raptors have one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA. They know how to take advantage of their opportunities. The Celtics have a lot of inconsistent shooters and they cannot afford to go cold in a game that will be slower than they are accustomed to.
The Celtics will almost certainly need some sort of boost from their bench again. Even with Thomas they are only at their best when the second unit is playing well. Brad Stevens is never afraid to go deep, and some of the most important roles come from the bench.
Jaylen Brown becomes much more important in small ball lineups, and Terry Rozier is in complete offensive control with the reserves. A bad game from both of them may be too hard to overcome. The Celtics are yet to have a truly complete performance against a top team, and that is what they are going to need against the Raptors.
DeRozan has been one of the best scorers in the league this year. He has proven that he is capable of scoring on any defender. Tonight will be a great test for Boston’s defense. Without Thomas, defense needs to be the way that the Celtics win this game. If they can slow down the Raptors’ back court and get the turnovers that will put them in transition, the Celtics should be able to take control of the game and give the Celtics the victory the home crowd has been waiting for.