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76ers and Raptors provide early season measuring sticks for Celtics

It’s too early to draw many conclusions about the 2018-19 season, but for a Boston Celtics team that is back to whole after an injury-marred 2017-18 campaign, they were tested right out of the gate. Boston opened at home against the Philadelphia 76ers before traveling to face another Atlantic Division competitor at the Toronto Raptors. More than being two division games, these are two of the Celtics chief rivals in the Eastern Conference.

Last year, Boston battled Toronto for most of the season for the number one seed in the East, faltering late in the year after losing Kyrie Irving for season. Then the Celtics got a matchup with the Sixers in the second round of the playoffs. After eight regular season games against both teams, plus five more against Philly in the postseason, it’s fair to say Boston has a healthy dislike for their Northeast neighbors. Rivalries make sports special and these two are heating up for the Celtics.

Let’s start with Philadelphia. The 76ers get a lot of publicity for their young talent, headlined by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They got well-deserved credit for adding solid veterans to bolster their youthful squad. And all offseason, the storyline was about Markelle Fultz making it back following a bizarre rookie season. The idea goes that the Sixers are ready to step forward this year. Following a 4-1 playoff defeat to Boston, where most of the games could have gone either way, Philadelphia was presumed ready to challenge in the Eastern Conference.

Opening night might have told us that the 76ers were further away than most thought. Fultz is better, but nowhere near the player needed for Philadelphia to meet their potential. The bench is missing Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala to start the year, but it’s been a complete mess. You can’t really count JJ Redick as a reserve when he’s in for all the key minutes and starting the second half of games. Simmons and Embiid have been terrific, but asking them to carry a team is still a tall order for the two youngsters.

Boston was able to outplay Philadelphia simply by being themselves. Al Horford confounds Embiid with his herky-jerky offensive game. The Sixers don’t have a guard who has a chance of containing Irving. Aron Baynes makes Embiid’s life generally miserable on offense. And, most importantly, the Celtics depth overwhelms the 76ers.

That depth doesn’t show up as much against the Raptors, one of the few teams who can match Boston in terms of NBA talent 1-10. Or 11. Or maybe even 12. And the Celtics versatility isn’t an advantage against Toronto, who is just as adaptable, maybe even more so. That made their matchup on night two of the season so highly anticipated. The healthy Celtics against a Kawhi Leonard-led Raptors. And the game delivered for the most part.

It had some fits and starts, which is to be expected with mid-October basketball. At times Boston looked unbeatable. Then Toronto looked like they were the class of the East. In the end, the home team ran away and hid with the lead. The Raptors had near-flawless execution down the stretch, while the Celtics looked like a team incorporating two All-Stars back in to the lineup.

It’s an odd dichotomy. Boston added almost no new players this summer, while Toronto added two new starters. Yet, it’s Brad Stevens who has to make decisions about who should be in his closing lineup. Such is the case when guys like Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart are used to being on the floor after last year’s playoff run. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown grew up before our eyes and earned the right to be out there when it counts. Horford is often the lone big in late-game situations. And Irving and Gordon Hayward are established All-Stars. That’s seven guys for five spots. Whoever isn’t closing games isn’t going to be happy about it. That is arguably Stevens’ biggest challenge when he has the full roster at his disposal.

On the other side, rookie head coach Nick Nurse can plug and play his closers. Leonard and Danny Green have championship-level experience, so they’re in there for sure. Kyle Lowry is the old war dog who has seen it all. Serge Ibaka is their most versatile defensive big and used to closing as part of small lineups. The only real decision is Pascal Siakam vs OG Anunoby. Nurse can play the hot hand, until one of the young forwards claims the role.

At least for one night, Toronto looked like they had it all figured out late in the game, while Stevens was still searching for the right five Celtics for winning time. Combine that with homecourt advantage and it’s not really a surprise the Raptors came away the victor.

Boston followed up the Raptors loss with an uninspired win over the Knicks, in a game that was played like it was taking place in the dog days of early March. New York closed with a host of players who won’t be a part of the Knicks next playoff team, while the far more talented Celtics struggled to put them away. A win is a win, but it sure wasn’t pretty.

Opening week isn’t the place to be making final pronouncements on players or teams. If you thought something a week ago, nothing you see over the first few games should really change your mind. Likewise, it’s not a time to crow about how right you were about something. But it’s never really too early to take stock of where you stand as a team. The Celtics are better than the Sixers and probably about on par with the Raptors. In the first year of a post-LeBron Eastern Conference, that’s not a bad place to be.

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