NBA debate: Predictions for Celtics-Raptors Game 7

Let’s go to Game 7!

For the third time in the 2020 NBA playoffs, a series is going the distance. Along the way, the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors have put on eye-popping shooting displays and defensive clinics, with star performances on the court and a coaching chess match on the sideline.

We asked five of our experts to tell us what’s underrated about this series, what to watch for and which team should be favored in Game 7 and beyond.

NBA schedule: Game 7, plus the West semis

1. What’s most underappreciated about this series?

Zach Lowe: Nick Nurse looking exhausted and sounding hoarse in every on-court interview?

OK, fine: Boston winning the center battle despite Serge Ibaka’s hot shooting. Daniel Theis’ scoring quieted in Games 2-4, but his defense has been sensational throughout. He has fared well enough corralling Toronto’s high-octane pick-and-roll attack, and looked shockingly comfortable switching onto Kyle Lowry in Game 5.

Given the stakes, the past two games probably mark the finest two-game stretch of Theis’ NBA career: 33 points on 14-of-16 shooting, and steady defense all over the floor. Throw in solid minutes from the Time Lord — even given his shaky defense against Ibaka pick-and-pops — and Boston’s less decorated centers have outplayed their Toronto counterparts.

Chris Herring: That the series has been this close, and tied at three games apiece, despite the Celtics having won a pair of blowouts. Boston also spanked the Raptors by 22 in the bubble prior to the playoffs, suggesting that it has more firepower. That Toronto has a chance is a testament to coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors’ refusal to be dismissed, no matter how many daggers the Celtics drive into them.

Marc J. Spears: These are the two highest-seeded teams remaining in the East, and they are battling in the second round — and in a Game 7, no less. And because it is in a bubble environment, there is renewed meaning to “win or go home” here. Both teams and their loved ones might have to pack in preparation for being sent packing.

Jorge Sedano: How intense, emotional and petty this series has become, from Nurse roaming out of the coaches’ box and baiting Jayson Tatum into a late-game turnover to the Raptors reportedly irking Jaylen Brown by chanting, “Hey, batter batter,” while Brown was at the free throw line. Tensions escalated with Marcus Smart battling Kyle Lowry on the floor and jawing with Norman Powell after the buzzer.

Kevin Pelton: How much Boston’s reserves have stepped up with Gordon Hayward sidelined. Brad Wanamaker is averaging 18 minutes per game and has hit 50% of his 3s, Robert Williams has been an important source of energy and above-the-rim finishing and Grant Williams has played with maturity far beyond his status as a rookie. All three of those players have positive net ratings for the series.

2. What’s the biggest key for the Celtics in Game 7?

Lowe: Finding an offensive rhythm when the Raptors bust out their various geometric zones or go small, with Pascal Siakam at center, and switch everything. In the guts of Game 6, Boston leaned on Kemba Walker-Jayson Tatum pick-and-rolls, hoping to get Fred VanVleet switched onto Tatum and exploit that size mismatch. Their production was uneven, though Tatum seemed to find a rhythm late. But Toronto’s schemes took Walker out. Boston will have trouble surviving another subpar Walker performance.

Herring: Limiting Kyle Lowry. As this series has shown, and as we should’ve known already, he’s the heart and soul behind what Toronto does. He’s had to do some heavy lifting offensively in this series because of how well the Celtics are bottling up Siakam. Boston has won all three games in which it’s held Lowry under the 20-point mark, while losing all three in which he’s eclipsed that mark.

Spears: Take a deep breath and get back to what made them successful during their three wins: great defense, well-rounded offense, not getting too emotional when something goes wrong. Live in the moment and take each play one at a time.

Sedano: Marcus Smart’s defense is the Celtics’ not-so-secret sauce — everyone knows how important the first-team All-Defensive guard is on that end. However, his timely offense has been a huge factor in this series. His offensive heroics in Games 1, 2 and 6 have been eye-opening.

Pelton: Finding a way to make Toronto pay for going back to the small lineup that finished Game 6. That group has tremendous defensive versatility in terms of switching matchups, but is lacking in rim protection if Boston can consistently break down the first line of defense.

3. What’s the biggest key for the Raptors in Game 7?

Lowe: Production from the supporting cast, particularly Siakam and their two-headed center. Lowry and VanVleet won’t always shoot well — no one does — but they will shoot and score a lot. Ibaka’s 3-point shooting — he’s 14-of-27 in the series — has been massive, especially given Marc Gasol didn’t make a triple until Game 6. OG Anunoby and Norman Powell swing up and down as scorers — typical of supporting wings who get lots of chances on some nights and very few on others. Even if Nurse pulls the plug on his centers early, the Raptors need a certain threshold of points from their three bigs unless their guards go bananas.

Herring: Can Siakam produce a single efficient outing in this series? It’s not shocking that he’s struggled, given Boston’s stoppers. But while we often look out for unexpected, wild-card performances in Game 7s, the Raptors would be well-positioned if Siakam simply managed a good scoring night.

Spears: Use that championship experience, poise, team camaraderie and big-play capability to win this deciding game. The Raptors have played in big games with a lot of pressure before, most notably in the 2019 NBA Finals. Toronto has found success this season by committee and should not forget that.

Sedano: Siakam needs to find his footing. At best, he’s been erratic. At worst, he’s been borderline unplayable on offense. He needs to find some rhythm and be a threat from beyond the arc for the Raptors to win.

Pelton: Is it oversimplifying to say making 3s? Toronto has won all three games in this series with a 3-point percentage better than 30%. “Make or miss league” is a cliché for a reason. More generally, the Raptors need to consistently generate good shots against set defense, something that might be easier with a five-out lineup.

4. Fact or Fiction: The winner of Game 7 should be the favorite to make the NBA Finals.

Lowe: Faction, as Kevin Pelton might say. Miami has earned even-up status against Toronto. If Gordon Hayward returns, I would slot the Celtics as slight favorites and I bet Vegas would, too. But Miami is real.

Herring: After watching what Miami just did to Milwaukee, and seeing how Siakam is struggling against Boston’s defense, I don’t know that I could consider the Raptors a clear favorite. I could probably be talked into calling the Celtics the favorite, since they pack more offensive punch than the Heat. Still, I see Miami’s playoff dominance as meaningful. And the Eastern Conference finals should probably be seen as a push.

Spears: Fact. The Miami Heat have two stars, dynamic young players and lots of veterans, and they’ll be well rested. It will be a tough series. But pound for pound, the Celtics and the Raptors have better teams.

Sedano: It depends. Styles make fights. If Toronto wins, the Heat have a favorable matchup. But if Boston wins, the Celtics have had Miami’s number and should be the favorite in the next round. Regardless, the winners will be basketball fans, who will get an elite coaching matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.

Pelton: Faction. The Heat’s defense seems capable of causing similar problems for Toronto as it did for Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the Heat seem less equipped to match up with Boston, particularly if Hayward is able to return during the conference finals.

5. Which team wins Game 7?

Lowe: I picked Celtics in 7, so I should stick with that. They have two blowouts to their ledger; every Toronto win has been close. That might not mean anything in what feels closer to a coin-flip Game 7 — and with every recent Game 7 seemingly wild and ugly — but I’ll still go Boston.

It will be fascinating to see who looks more tired after eight players — four from each team — played 50-plus minutes in that epic Game 6.

Herring: I initially picked Boston in seven, and likewise am going to stick with that — partly because it’s much easier to answer the question of where the Celtics’ offensive production will come from. The blowouts earlier in the series — and the data in support of teams enjoying big margins heading into Game 7s — makes me think this is their game to lose.

Spears: Toronto. The Celtics had their chances ahead 2-0 and 3-2 in the series, and didn’t succeed. Yes, Toronto won on a prayer in Game 3 and after two overtimes in Game 6. But Fred VanVleet was right. The Celtics should not have given the Raptors another chance.

Sedano: Boston. The Raptors have been a worthy defending champion, showing they could play at a high level without Kawhi Leonard. But if Siakam’s woes continue, Boston has too much firepower in Tatum, Brown and Walker and an elite glue guy in Smart.

Pelton: The beauty of neutral-court Game 7s, as we saw in the first round with both Denver-Utah and Houston-Oklahoma City, is that they’re truly up for grabs without home-court advantage as a massive swing factor. Based on the way they’ve outplayed the Raptors over the course of the series, I think the Celtics are the favorite, but neither outcome should be remotely surprising.

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