The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are still searching for their respective ‘A’ games as the Eastern Conference semi-final series heads into Game 5.
Monday night’s NBA playoff games live on Sky Sports
- Celtics @ Raptors Game 5 | Sky Sports Arena | 11:30pm
- Clippers @ Nuggets Game 3 | Sky Sports Arena | 2am
The series has taken an unexpected path to an expected destination. The Celtics were half a second from taking a 3-0 lead, but we now have a 2-2 series with a pivotal Game 5 on Monday night, live on Sky Sports Arena at 11:30pm.
With a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals coming down to the best-of-three games, here are three things to know about what we have seen in this series so far.
A starting advantage
The Raptors seemingly had a depth advantage coming into this series with Gordon Hayward out, Marcus Smart in Boston’s starting line-up and legitimate questions about everybody left on the Celtics’ bench.
Per aggregate bench net rating, the Raptors had the NBA’s best bench in the regular season. And then they had the best bench in the first round of the playoffs, outscoring the admittedly-heavily-depleted Brooklyn Nets by 72 points (28.4 per 100 possessions) in 116 minutes with Norman Powell and/or Serge Ibaka on the floor.
But through the first two games of this series, Toronto were a minus-20 in Powell and Ibaka’s 32 minutes together. With Celtics’ back-up center Robert Williams III shooting 10-for-10, Boston were winning the bench minutes.
Through those first two games, the Raps were minus-one in 64 minutes with Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry on the floor together and, incredibly, a minus-30 in 17 minutes with VanVleet on the floor without Lowry.
The solution was simply to not let Lowry rest. The 34-year-old point guard played 46 minutes, 29 seconds in Game 3 and then 43 minutes, 47 seconds in Game 4.
He is not the only Raptor whose minutes have been extended. Pascal Siakam has actually played the entire second half in each of the last three games. OG Anunoby played the entire second half of Game 3 (memorably capping it with his only three points of those 24 minutes to win the game) and VanVleet played the entire second half of Game 4.
The Raptors’ starters have been pretty good. After getting outscored in Game 1, the Toronto starting line-up is a plus-24 in 62 minutes over the last three games. That breaks down to a plus-30 in 37 minutes against the Boston starting line-up and a minus-six in 25 minutes otherwise.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens subbed Williams in for Daniel Theis just two-and-a-half into Game 4, seemingly preferring the Williams match-up versus Marc Gasol. After playing 13 of his 50 minutes against Gasol through the first three games, Williams played 12 of his 15 minutes against Gasol in Game 4.
For the series, Boston are a plus-10 with the Williams vs Gasol match-up, and we could see more of it going forward.
The second quarter: Not pretty
That Toronto advantage with the starters has shown up more in the third quarter than in the first. While they have been outscored by 39 points otherwise, the Raptors are a plus-26, having scored 129.8 points per 100 possessions, in the third period.
Siakam has almost as many buckets in the third quarter (when he is 13-for-25) than he does in the other three periods combined (14-for-45). Anunoby is 8-for-10 in the third, Ibaka has made all four of his third-quarter three-point attempts, and the Raps have scored at least 125 points per 100 possessions in all four third quarters.
The second quarter, meanwhile, has been brutal on both ends of the floor. Both teams have scored less than a point per possession in all four second quarters of the series. The cumulative score in 48 second-quarter minutes is Celtics 88, Raptors 76.
This has been the least efficient of the four conference semi-finals series. Through Sunday, the Celtics (104.6 points per 100 possessions) and Raptors (101.0) rank seventh and eighth in offensive efficiency in this round. The Toronto offense has improved since the first two games, while the Boston offense had its worst game of the playoffs on Saturday night, with the Raptors’ defense playing a not-insignificant role in the Celtics shooting 7-for-35 from three-point range.
It seems unlikely that either team is going to bust out with a huge offensive performance in Game 5. Maybe one could at least score a point per possession in the second quarter, though.
Celtics struggles against the zone
The Raptors played the third most zone defense in the regular season, according to Synergy play-type tracking. And they have played more than twice as much zone in this series as they did in the first round against Brooklyn. The champs have played zone on 55 (14 per cent) of Boston’s offensive possessions.
There have been a few possessions of a triangle-and-two zone, and in the fourth quarter of Game 4, we saw a few possessions of a box-and-one. But for the most part, the Raptors have employed a 2-3 or 2-1-2 zone. And through four games, the Celtics have not quite figured it out.
Boston have scored just 47 points on those 55 possessions of zone, a rate of 85 per 100 possessions. They have shot 15-for-42 (6-for-23 from three-point range), with more turnovers (16) than field goals. Otherwise (in transition and against man-to-man), the Celtics have scored 108 points per 100 possessions.
The one good stretch that the Celtics had against the zone was late in the third quarter of Game 3, when they scored 15 points over eight possessions.
The Celtics are obviously going over their zone offense in between games, but the need for rest on days off may make it hard to get in any live-action practice reps. Expect to see more of it in Game 5.