The last time the Boston Celtics faced the Toronto Raptors, they were riding high on the wings of their Opening Night victory against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Raptors, of course, pulled away down the stretch in their first game with Kawhi Leonard, and the Celtics were given their first indicator that the East might not belong exclusively to them. Other indicators would come — the emergence of the Milwaukee Bucks as a contender with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the forefront, Boston’s own struggles faced with a tough road schedule start the season, etc. — but the first was the Raptors, who made it clear they are a contender (and probably the favorite, at this point) to emerge from the Eastern Conference in June.
The next few weeks hammered that point home. The Celtics scuffled, going 1-4 on a tough West Coast road trip and falling to 7-6. The Raptors roared out to a 12-3 record, and despite a couple of worrisome performances by Leonard, their defense and depth have looked every bit as threatening as advertised.
On Friday evening, the Celtics get their second crack at Toronto, as the Raptors visit the TD Garden for the first time. Toronto has lost two straight, one each to the New Orleans Pelicans and Detroit Pistons, and it will be looking to correct its course against Boston. The Celtics, meanwhile, rolled the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday and appeared to get their feet under themselves. The 111-82 win gave the Celtics a chance to take some low-pressure field-goal attempts, which was very necessary, since Boston had been struggling with the higher stakes ones.
The blowout win left everyone feeling good. Whether those good vibes will continue against Toronto remains to be seen, but either way, Kyrie Irving noted the Celtics are hoping to grow into a far superior squad than the one that visited the Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 19.
“We just have to be up for the challenge,” Irving said. “I’m excited for that game. I’m excited for both games, back and forth (the Celtics play Utah on Saturday). Obviously one game at a time, but that’s just a competitor’s dream to be going against the best of the best. Obviously early-season when we played them in Toronto it wasn’t who we are now or what we’re trying to grow into, so I think it’ll just be a great test for us. They have a lot of great players that we all well know. So, just up for the challenge.”
For Boston fans, the Celtics’ struggles since may have obscured how close the teams actually were in their first meeting.
“With Toronto, I felt like we were right there,” Al Horford said. “I think they hurt us in transition. We have to do a better job of getting back, getting matched. And our shot selection obviously needs to be better. That’s something I’m sure coach will emphasize. And then with Utah, we were right there as well. Obviously, Kyrie didn’t play, so now he’ll be back, and that should go better as well.”
The Celtics and Raptors tip off at 7 p.m. on ESPN.