The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors both have 25 games remaining in the 2016-17 regular season as they come out of the All-Star break on Friday night. If the Raptors have any shot of catching Boston for the Atlantic Division lead, then Friday is a must win. Toronto is a slight favourite on Sports Interaction NBA odds.
Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors
Spread: Raptors -2.5
Date: Friday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m. ET
Location: Air Canada Centre
The Celtics (37-20) decided not to make a major move ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline. Boston has the assets to acquire just about anyone on the market with the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round picks this year and next. The Celtics were called by the Kings about DeMarcus Cousins, but Boston declined to get in the bidding. The C’s were very interested in Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and Indiana’s Paul George, both All-Stars, but apparently will wait until the summer to make an aggressive move for either.
I find it interesting that Boston didn’t make a big splash because the Eastern Conference could be there for the taking with Cavaliers All-Star Kevin Love likely out another four weeks or so following knee surgery. The Celtics could use a second scorer to take the load off Isaiah Thomas, who is second in the NBA at 29.9 points per game. They also are a bit weak on the boards. The Celtics trail Cleveland by three games for the East’s top spot, and Boston leads Toronto by four in the Atlantic Division.
Boston entered the break having won 11 of 13. Thomas is on a roll unlike any player in Celtics history – and there have been a few pretty good players to wear green and white. Thomas has scored at least 20 points in 41 straight games, breaking the previous team mark of 40 set by Hall of Famer John Havlicek. Thomas is currently tied with Larry Bird for the highest-scoring team mark in a single season at 29.9 ppg. No Celtic has ever led the NBA in scoring. Thomas has work to do to catch Russell Westbrook (31.1 ppg). Finally, Thomas leads the NBA by far in fourth-quarter scoring at 10.7 ppg. This guy was the final pick of the 2011 draft and basically given away by Sacramento and then Phoenix.
The break could allow Celtics guard Avery Bradley to return from an Achilles injury Friday. He has missed 20 of the past 21 games. Bradley averages 17.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Short of Thomas getting injured, it’s difficult to see the Raptors (33-24) catching the Celtics in the Atlantic Division with so few games left. Boston is a -400 favourite with the Raptors at +250 on NBA odds. That said, a win here would give Toronto the season series and a key potential tiebreaker. More likely, the Raptors need to focus more on beating out Washington for the East’s No. 3 seed, and the Wizards have a two-game lead there.
This will be the Raptors debut of former Thunder and Magic power forward Serge Ibaka. He was acquired right before the break from Orlando for swingman Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round pick. Ibaka would appear to be a perfect fit for the Raptors’ most glaring need. He has range out to the 3-point line and is a very good defender and shot-blocker – if not quite at the level of his Oklahoma City heyday when Ibaka was a three-time member of the All-Defensive First Team.
The Magic were willing to give him up because Ibaka will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Raptors believe they can re-sign him, although they also have to pay big money to Kyle Lowry. Ibaka, who is averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, is just 27.
Ibaka gives the Raptors arguably the best starting five in the East – at least while the Cavs’ Love is out injured — alongside All-Stars Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, small forward DeMarre Carroll and center Jonas Valanciunas.
Will Friday also be the Raptors debut of P.J. Tucker? The small forward was acquired Thursday from Phoenix for Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks. Tucker was averaging 7.0 points and 6.0 rebounds and essentially takes the spot of Ross. Sullinger missed most of the season to foot surgery and only averaged a bit more than 10 minutes in the 11 games he did play. Good deal for the Raptors to add wing help at little cost.
Toronto entered the break with an 11-14 record in the New Year after starting the season 22-10.
Celtics at Raptors Prediction
Toronto is 2-1 against Boston this season and won the lone home matchup 114-106 on Jan. 19 behind 41 points and career-high 13 rebounds from DeRozan. Valanciunas had a career-high 23 rebounds to go with 18 points. The Celtics led by as many as 16 in the second half. Thomas is averaging 35.5 points in the three games vs. the Raptors. He had 44 in Boston’s lone win, 109-104 on Feb. 1.
The Celtics are 1-4 against the spread in their past five at Air Canada Centre, so take Toronto here. The total has gone under in four of the past five meetings overall so lean that way.