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How the Boston Celtics can catch the Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors are off to a hot start in 2018-19. Here are a few thoughts on how the Boston Celtics can close the gap.

The Toronto Raptors are 11-1. The Boston Celtics are 7-4 and were tipped to be one of the favorites — if not the favorite — to win the Eastern Conference heading into the 2018-19 season.

That reality hasn’t quite materialized just yet.

The Celtics have the ideas, the players and the depth to go all the way this year, but, if they’re going to play the way they played the first quarter against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday — which carried with it an echo of the brick-fest that defined their game against the Orlando Magic — then, no, they’re not going to catch up with Toronto.

Indeed, the quality of the Celtics’ start against the Suns makes one wonder who’s putting together film and scouting reports for this team, as Phoenix is — as I highlighted in a piece I wrote about the Spurs — an eminently beatable team. There’s also an argument to be made that the Celtics coming back and winning against the Suns marks a return to their grind-it-out form from last year, but let’s not diverge entirely from the argument just yet.

It’s an area of concern that roughly tracks with the way in which concern has followed the Houston Rockets at the start of their season. It’s a lightbulb switching on that realizes that someone might have to worry at some point without necessarily knowing what that point is.

The Ringer put the problems of the Celtics down to a combination of Gordon Hayward finding his way back and Brad Stevens trying to figure out which lineup worked the best. The Celtics have scorers, but how do you want to use them?

There was a vague rhetorical gesture on The Ringer‘s podcast in the direction of borrowing more from the Golden State Warriors’ style of play, which might make sense if you compare the number of off-ball screens the Warriors set (last season: 14.7 per game) with the number of off-ball screens the Celtics set. That would require getting a second player like Al Horford, and would perhaps explain why we hear so many stories linking the Celtics with Anthony Davis, as Davis has historically been capable of producing a similar effect.

But let’s say Boston starts to click and the focus of the Eastern Conference winnows until it’s just the Raptors vs. the Celtics. What happens then?

Beyond Kawhi Leonard, beyond shutting down Kyle Lowry‘s ability to set the tempo of the offense (Lowry probably being the biggest and most underappreciated threat Toronto has to offer), it’s worth looking at this 30-minute video put together by Bryan Oringher outlining Serge Ibaka‘s game, which notes his pace (he gets down the floor quickly during breaks), his positioning for rebounds, how he rolls to rim, posts up on mismatches and more. It highlights a consistent strength to Toronto’s game.

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So if it ever comes down to the Celtics against the Raptors in the postseason, then it’ll be worth beating Ibaka up the floor, keeping him far away from the circle beneath the rim, switching a big man onto Ibaka accordingly where necessary, and forcing him to drive left. And then there’s all the rest.

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