BOSTON – Standing square in the middle of the NBA’s spotlight are the Boston Celtics. They are, unquestionably, the most popular and heralded team in the Eastern Conference heading into the 2018-19 season. The league’s release Wednesday of its marquee opening-week and holiday games is proof of that fact.
The Celtics will be highlighted on the two most important regular-season dates of the NBA’s regular season: Opening Night and Christmas Day. They will play on national television on both dates, and at home in front of their best-in-class crowd.
Here’s a deeper look into Boston’s marquee matchups that were released Wednesday afternoon.
Opening Night | 8 p.m., Oct. 16 | vs. Philadelphia 76ers
This historic rivalry is back, and it’s budding.
The NBA knows as much, and it’s jumping on board to highlight a matchup between the Atlantic Division rivals on Opening Night. This contest will be the first between the teams since May 9, when Boston sent the 76ers packing for the summer by eliminating them from the Playoffs following Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Boston won that series 4-1, but it was closer than that tally might indicate. The Celtics’ margin of victory during its final three wins of the series was just 3.3 points per game, and Philadelphia narrowly missed winning one of those games at the buzzer.
That series is fresh in both teams’ minds, and it will serve as a motivating factor for Philadelphia’s talented young core. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric make up one of the top up-and-coming trios in the league. Embiid was an All-Star last season, while Simmons won the Rookie of the Year award.
But the Sixers will be staring down a Celtics team that will be far more talented than the one it lost to during the postseason. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, two All-Stars, are set to return to Boston’s lineup. And let’s not forget to mention how jacked up the TD Garden crowd will be for this highly-anticipated season to get underway.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, lost sharpshooters Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova during free agency, and its top draft pick, Zhaire Smith, is sidelined indefinitely with a broken foot. It did, however, add Wilson Chandler, and word out of Philly is that second-year guard and former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz is poised to log an impressive season.
8 p.m., Oct. 19 | at Toronto Raptors
We may need to jog your memory in regard to this forgotten fact: it wasn’t the Celtics nor the Cavaliers that secured the top record in the East last season. It was the Toronto Raptors.
And some believe that the NBA’s North-of-the-border friends will be even better this season.
That’s because Toronto sent shockwaves throughout the NBA this offseason when it acquired former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in exchange for a package highlighted by DeMar DeRozan.
Leonard missed all but nine games last season, and questions still remain pertaining to his health, but when healthy, he is unquestionably an upgrade from DeRozan. Leonard is regarded as a top-five player in the league when at full strength.
Meanwhile, everyone is wondering what the Celtics can be when they are at full strength. As we’ve already highlighted, Boston, a team that came within a win of reaching the NBA Finals last season, will be supercharged by the returns of All-Stars Irving and Hayward. This team is scary talented; as Brad Stevens recently stated, it has eight to 10 starter-level players on its roster.
Surely, it will be a heck of a showdown in Toronto when these two new-look teams clash for the first time amid their quest for Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference supremacy.
Christmas Day | 5:30 p.m., Dec. 25 | vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Like we said: the NBA is all-in on Celtics-Sixers and is capitalizing on a revitalized rivalry.
Boston and Philadelphia, both expected to compete for the Eastern Conference crown, will meet on national television on Opening Night, and a second matchup will be showcased nationally on Christmas Day. The league constructs only five juicy matchups for its Christmas Day telecasts across ESPN and ABC. This matchup certainly deserves its place as one of them.
Where will these two teams stand when they meet Dec. 25? Will the Celtics be rolling at the top of the East, or might the Sixers jump ahead of them? Will injuries become a factor by this point in either team’s pursuit of a berth into the Finals?
We don’t know yet, but we can’t wait to find out. This matchup is a gift we’ll all enjoy watching on Christmas Day.