Round 3 between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics is just one day away. Two of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference go head-to-head at the TD Garden to break the 1-1 tie of their season series.
Leading up to this matchup, NBA.com's Carlan Gay and Kyle Irving discuss who they believe would win in a best of seven series if the season ended today.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): If the season ended today, the Raptors would beat the Celtics in no more than six games in a best of seven series. I might even have to say five.
The Raptors are playing some of their best basketball of the season right now, and more importantly, Kawhi Leonard is finally starting to look like the player he was before an injury that kept him out most of last season.
Leonard is averaging a career-high 27.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 35 games season. His offensive rating of 121 matches his rating in his 2015-16 break out season in San Antonio. His 27.2 PER is fourth-best in the league only behind Anthony Davis, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Kyle Lowry has had ups and downs this season, but in the two games against the Celtics so far he's averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds.
Pascal Siakam has proved to be a great third option for the team and is averaging 19.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on 55% shooting from the field during Toronto's most recent five-game winning streak.
Despite missing Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors rotation is getting healthier by the day and guys are getting more comfortable in their roles on the team.
Nick Nurse also has brought a calmness to the Raptors huddle in close games so far this year. In games decided by five points or less, Toronto has a winning percentage of 63%. Last season without Kawhi and with Dwane Casey at the helm in that same situation, the Raptors had a 57% winning percentage. The year before that, in 2016-17? 51%.
There have been critics that the Raptors are relying on Kawhi too much in the clutch, but Toronto is winning those game more than they have in the last two years, and those pressure wins are going to be the ones that most replicate any playoff scenario.
If you're wondering how the Celtics are doing in the clutch this year, they're a .500 team.
The season series is tied at one, the Raptors got one at home and lost a tough one to the Celtics on the road. To beat Toronto in that game back in November, it took a season-high 43 points from Kyrie Irving - and the game went to the final possession. Kyrie is phenomenal, but to ask that much of him for an entire playoff series is a lot.
I don't even think I have to get into the chemistry issues Boston clearly seems to have - I'll leave that one alone.
Raptors in six, and I'm being generous.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): This is a tough argument to make given the current state of the team, but I'm still riding with the Celtics in a best of seven series over the Raptors today.
Yes, today - not down the road, not come playoff time, today.
The timing of this is unfortunate given three consecutive road losses against teams you would not expect to give the Celtics trouble, but that's the timing of the league - had this been a handful of days earlier we would be talking about their four-game winning streak that was capped off by a 27-point blowout win over a high-quality Indiana Pacers team.
Kawhi Leonard is playing MVP-caliber basketball right now but I truly believe the Celtics' failure to live up to their preseason hype has downplayed the level that Kyrie Irving is competing at this season.
Irving is currently a top-20 points per game scorer while creating opportunities for his teammates at a career-high rate of 6.4 assists per game. He's also averaging career-highs in rebounds (4.8 per game) and steals (1.6 per game) while shooting just under his career-bests from both the field and 3-point land. He's a gamer and I'm confident he'll match whatever level Kawhi brings his game to in any playoff series.
Around him is still the deepest team in the league on paper, though they've had they troubles offensively as of late. Even through these struggles, they're still a top-10 offence in the league in terms of offensive rating.
At times it seems their biggest issue is that they have too much talent and haven't been able to figure out how to distribute that among everyone - this certainly isn't the worst problem to have.
Add to it that they boast the fifth best defensive rating in the NBA at 104.6 points per 100 possessions and all of a sudden their offensive "struggles" doesn't sound like too much to overcome.
As for the chemistry issue that developed following Irving's comments over the weekend, this Jayson Tatum quote after the Nets' loss speaks volumes - moreso than the Jaylen Brown quote that made everyone's headlines.
"It's not really directed toward anybody or calling guys out," Tatum told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe. "He's telling the truth. He knows what it takes to win a championship and most of us don't. And sometimes you have to be brutally honest in this profession to get the best out of one another."
And I'm going to take my chances on head coach Brad Stevens and leaders like Irving, Al Horford and Marcus Smart to get the best out of this team in a seven-game playoff series. They raise their bar against top calibre teams and I'd expect them to take care of business in Game 6 at the TD Garden if a playoff series started today.
Wednesday brings the third of four meetings between these two Eastern Conference rivals. The first two did not disappoint, and it's highly likely this one won't either.