For a regular season game in the beginning of January, tomorrow's matchup with Toronto is about as big as it gets. Most preseason projections had these two teams finishing 2 and 3 in the Eastern Conference, and that's exactly where they sit now as we near the halfway point in this NBA season. The Celtics got off to a sluggish-ish start to the year. A mix of injuries set them back early, but they have come out firing on all cylinders since the middle of December - they are 10-2 since Isaiah Thomas returned from an injury on December 16th:
NBA - BEST RECORD— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) January 8, 2017
(Since Dec. 16)
1. BOSTON 10-2
3. Cleveland 9-2
San Antonio 9-2
5. Golden State 8-2
On the other hand, Toronto looked to be in midseason form to start the year, and just less than two weeks ago they led the Celtics by 4.5 games in the Atlantic Division (also the 2nd seed in the East). After losing 5 of their last 7 games though, the Raptors have coughed up that cushion and now only only one game separates the two teams:
It's official, Atlantic Division lead and No. 2 spot in East will be on the line Tuesday in Toronto. Celtics now 1 game back of Raptors.— CelticsLife.com (@CelticsLife) January 9, 2017
Unfortunately the Celtics are missing starting shooting-guard Avery Bradley tomorrow night with a strained achilles, but maybe a silver lining is the it's an opportunity for some of the other guards to get more minutes against a potential playoff opponent. We saw last year how much the team struggled without Bradley in their first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks - it didn't go so well.
Marcus Smart is coming off a big game against the Pelicans on Saturday, where he also started in Avery's place. Smart not only wreaked havoc on the defensive end, per usual, but he was a menace on the offensive end as well. He notched 22 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 5 three-pointers. Without Bradley in the lineup tomorrow the C's are going to need a big effort from Marcus on both ends of the floor tomorrow, and he's going to need some help defending two potential All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
The Celtics dropped their first matchup this season against Toronto at the TD Garden back on December 9th, but they were missing their leading scorer in Isaiah Thomas in that aforementioned injury. Him and Lowry going head to head at the point tomorrow should be quite the duel. Toronto and Boston are very similiar in their makeups as both teams lack in the rebounding department (24th and 26th in NBA, respectively) and have two of the higher offensive ratings in the league as well (3rd and 7th).
Boston has played well of late, and this will be a big time statement for them if they can knock off their closest competition in the conference, particularly without Bradley - Cleveland is still miles ahead of both teams. There's two more matchups set between the two after tomorrow, a February 1st matchup back in Boston, and then the final regular season contest between them February 24th, which happens to be a day removed from the NBA trade deadline. These two teams could look awfully different in that final matchup, as Boston has been linked to nearly every trade rumor in the league and Toronto is very interested in acquiring Paul Millsap from Atlanta.
Although we shouldn't overstate the outcome of any regular-season game, you'd have to think that tomorrow's showdown will be a larger barometer than usual for these two teams measuring themselves against a potential opponent in the 2nd round of the playoffs.
Photo Credit - Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkAL401 Mark Allison 1/09/2017 06:00:00 PM Tweet Edit