TORONTO — The Boston Celtics looked every bit the part of an Eastern Conference contender in their dismantling of the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday — a win that seemed to erase any memory of lackluster preseason performances and sent existential shivers through Philly’s fanbase.
The Toronto Raptors looked a little bit less flashy in their debut, but they still bear every mark of a contender, assuming health for new star Kawhi Leonard. Toronto took down the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-104 on Wednesday. In his return to the court, Leonard posted 24 points on 9-for-22 shooting, while Kyle Lowry played like a complete lunatic — dropping 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting.
On Friday, the Raptors and Celtics meet for the first time this season — our first preview of what many around the league believe could be the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Jurassic Park is going to be crazy,” Kyrie Irving said on Tuesday. “I’ve been able to play there a few times but now that they have a veteran group, a veteran starting 5 with Danny Green, Kawhi, and obviously Kyle and Serge and all the other young guys — Siakam and OG Anunoby coming off the bench. Those guys are lethal when they get up and down. We’ll be prepared for a track meet, but as well as managing the game very well from my end.”
The Raptors’ case for contention is simple: Depth, defense and a no-questions-asked superstar. If Kawhi Leonard is hurt, this team might not be a threat. If he is healthy and engaged, scoring on this team might be a nightmare. Leonard, Lowry, OG Anunoby and Danny Green are all stalwart defenders. Fred Van Vleet leads a bench unit that outperformed the starters at times last year. Pascal Siakam broke out last season. Meanwhile offensively, Leonard showed he is more than capable of sparking a deep postseason run.
The Celtics, of course, have a strong bench of their own. Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris are more than capable of starting on most NBA teams, and the Celtics will be able to intersperse their stars into bench units as well.
The Celtics know they will be in a hostile environment on Friday.
“Definitely a very hard place, but we’ve just got to go in there and treat it like any other game,” Rozier said. “We’ve got to prepare and I think our coaches do a great job of getting us ready, so we’re coming in with a great mindset to win.”
Irving is excited about it.
“There’s nothing like dominating on the road,” Irving said. “I think, at this point, I’m just happy to be playing, man — away or home. Like I said, I’m just grateful.”
The Celtics and Raptors tip off at 8:00 p.m. on ESPN.