The Celtics have a real shot to make the NBA Finals, even sans Gordon Hayward this season, considering the Cavaliers are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been since LeBron James’ return.
But the Raptors pose a more pressing issue, one that most likely will decide the C’s fate even before the playoffs. That’s right: This Celtics campaign comes down to the next month — and, more specifically, it comes down to a pair of games over a five-day span in a few weeks.
The Celtics (45-20) trail the first-place Raptors (47-17) by three games in the loss column with 17 to play, which might be insurmountable were it not for two head-to-head games between the Atlantic Division rivals on March 31 in Boston and April 4 in Toronto. They split their first two meetings, and wins in both remaining games would give the C’s the only tiebreaker they’d need.
The No. 1 seed means more to the Celtics than in any season since 2012, when they took LeBron to Game 7 of an Eastern Conference finals that ended in Miami. It wasn’t so important last year, when the Raps and Wizards presented equally challenging second-round matchups, and the Cavs with Kyrie Irving were heavy favorites, even before the C’s lost Isaiah Thomas. (There was some talk, even, that Cleveland gifted Boston the top seed to avoid Washington.)
This year, the Celtics could secure a second-round meeting with the less-imposing Pacers, Wizards or 76ers and home-court advantage in the conference finals against the Raptors or Cavaliers, whose battle on the other side of the bracket isn’t likely to end in a sweep again.
Part of Cleveland’s advantage last season was its ability to breeze through two rounds before unleashing a rested roster on the C’s. Boston knows best what problems LeBron poses in the playoffs, even on the road. Just ask those 2012 Celtics, who owned a 3-2 lead before LeBron destroyed them in Game 6 in Boston and Game 7 in Miami. Their best shot to slay the King is to let Toronto deliver the first wound and bleed Cleveland into a seventh game at the Garden.
That’s if the Raptors don’t deliver the knockout blow first. This isn’t the same Toronto team as recent years past. They’re deeper than ever, DeMar DeRozan has developed into a bona fide MVP candidate, and coach Dwane Casey modernized his system for the pace-and-space era.
Anybody who has watched the Raptors’ rise this season knows Toronto won’t give up its stranglehold on the top seed easily or go down without a fight in the playoffs. Look no further than DeRozan willing Toronto to an overtime win on the second night of a back-to-back in Detroit against a desperate Pistons team with an equal-to-the-task Blake Griffin on Wednesday.
“Their starting lineup and their stars are well-documented, and their second unit may be the most fun group to watch in the whole league,” Brad Stevens said recently, “so it’s pretty special what they’re doing, and we know we have to play well on both ends to have a chance to win.”
The Raptors own the NBA’s fourth-best offense and third-best defense, outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions — twice the rate of the Celtics and almost eight points better than the Cavaliers. Only the Warriors and Spurs have had better net ratings over the past five years.
Toronto is no fluke, and that makes Boston even more desperate for the top seed. The Raptors are an entirely different beast at Air Canada Centre. They own the league’s best home record this season, and they’re 8-1 against the Celtics in Toronto during the Brad Stevens era. The C’s 5-4 record against the Raps at the Garden in that span isn’t great, but at least it’s above .500.
Home court has been just as big for the Raptors during their recent run of playoff appearances. They’re 12-10 overall at home in the playoffs over the past four years (5-4 after Round 1, 2-1 in the conference finals) and just 5-15 on the road (1-7 after Round 1, 0-3 in the conference finals).
With a 7-8 record at the Garden, the Celtics haven’t owned much of a home-court advantage in three trips to the playoffs under Stevens, although that’s a bit misleading. The C’s finished 0-5 in Boston against vastly superior Cavs teams in 2015 and 2017, and they lost the opening two games at the Garden in last year’s first-round series while regrouping from the death of Thomas’ sister.
They’re worse of late away from Boston in the playoffs, owning a 4-9 record that includes three road wins against a battered Bulls team last season. None of this paints a pretty picture for the C’s odds of making it out of Toronto, even if they own the East’s best road record this year (22-9).
So, how realistic is it for the Celtics to catch the Raptors in the standings down the stretch?
RAPTORS (47-17) | CELTICS (45-20)
Games left against teams above .500: Raptors 11 | Celtics 11
Record against teams above .500: Raptors 19-15 | Celtics 20-15
Games left against tanking teams: Raptors 4 | Celtics 5
Home games left: Raptors 9 | Celtics 7
Road games left: Raptors 9 | Celtics 10
Back-to-backs: Raptors 4 | Celtics 3
Their schedules aren’t so dissimilar. The C’s play two fewer home games down the stretch, but the Raptors have fewer layups and more back-to-backs. Outside of their two head-to-head meetings, here’s where the Celtics can hang their hat: Boston has just one game left against a contender (at Portland on March 23), while Toronto has a home game on Friday against a Houston team that’s riding a 16-game win streak and two games in Cleveland left on the slate.
The Celtics face their most difficult stretch starting Thursday. Six of their next seven games come against playoff opponents, launching into a four-game West Coast trip that thankfully features respites in Sacramento and Phoenix. Toronto has a fortnight gauntlet that includes the two head-to-head meetings with the C’s — home against the Clippers and Nuggets, at Boston and Cleveland, and back home for the Celtics (on night two of a back-to-back) and Pacers.
Still, the Celtics can’t afford to lose either game against the Raptors. Even if they get a split and Toronto loses three more games than them down the stretch, the Raptors break even in the first two tiebreakers (unless they lose their remaining game in New York or one of their two left against Brooklyn to drop below Boston in the division record tiebreaker), and they have a firm grip on the third (they’re five games up in the loss column on the Celtics in conference record).
Lose even one of the two games against Toronto, and the C’s are banking on the Raptors losing four more games than them with less than 20 to play. That ain’t happening. Toronto has lost four games total over the past seven weeks — a span in which the Celtics own an 11-10 record.
Sweeping that two-game set on March 31 in Boston and April 4 to secure the head-to-head tiebreaker is imperative, and even then the C’s are relying on the Raptors to drop an additional game between now and April 11. That’s a tall order, especially considering Toronto has won three of four games against Boston in three of the past four years. But it’s not impossible.
Their two previous meetings haven’t told us much. The Celtics edged the Raptors by one without Kyrie Irving in Boston on Nov. 12, when Toronto hadn’t found its footing and Boston was riding a 16-game win streak. And the Raps blew the C’s doors off on Feb. 6, when Boston was reeling and Toronto — on a streak of its own — had one of its best shooting nights of the year.
Chances are the next two meetings will look nothing like the last two. Both teams will be rested when they meet in Boston on the 31st, and both will be on the second night of a back-to-back when they play in Toronto five nights later. The Raptors are slightly better when they’re rested, and the Celtics are slightly better with no rest. This will all come down to execution — Stevens vs. Casey, Kyrie vs. DeRozan, Marcus Smart vs. Kyle Lowry (again) — and it’ll be damn fun.
Where Stevens has always said the next game is the only one that matters, and “if it all adds” up to the No. 1 seed, “that’s really important,” Casey has openly pined for first place. Said Lowry: “He wants us to embrace chasing after that top seed and that’s what we have to do.”
We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Any playoff success is gravy after Hayward’s leg split in two, and potential first-round opponents in Milwaukee and Miami aren’t so easy, but the Celtics can set themselves up for a Finals run if they play their cards right over the next month.
The alternative is a meeting with LeBron before a road conference finals series against the NBA’s best home team, in which case the C’s might as well pack early for summer vacation. So, buckle up, because every game from here on out is vital, especially those two against Toronto.