TORONTO — When the schedule came out for the restart of the 2019-20 season, it was hard not to get excited about the matchup that lit up the board during the time of year the NBA is normally either dormant or about to be.
Suddenly there were day-to-night triple-headers loaded with the kind of games that TV executives try to create all season and can keep a hoops fan couch-bound for hours at a time. It was like an NCAA tournament that didn’t take Monday to Wednesday off and all the players were really good.
Among the first to catch any Toronto Raptors fans eye was Friday night’s game against the Boston Celtics.
In the pre-bubble days, it looked to be a potentially season-defining contest — a non-playoff matchup with playoff implications. The Raptors entered the restart with a three-game lead over Boston for the No. 2 seed in the East, which was significant because it meant a first-round meeting with the likes of the Brooklyn Nets and the Orlando Magic rather than whoever of the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers or Philadelphia 76ers — all quality teams — ended up in the six hole.
A three-game lead seemed plenty, but the Raptors drew the second-most difficult schedule for the eight seeding games of the 22 teams ensconced at Walt Disney World Resort, while the Celtics had the third easiest.
It took little imagination to see the Raptors stumbling against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, with the Heat and Celtics simultaneously getting on a roll and Friday night’s game weighing heavy. Add in the possibility — or maybe even the likelihood — of the Raptors and Celtics facing each other in the second round of the playoffs and the game had edge.
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Instead, the Raptors are 3-0 and looking like they are rounding into form at the perfect time for a spirited title defence, while the Celtics have gone 2-2 and are still looking for their legs. There is the intrigue of a two-seed versus three-seed second-round playoff matchup still, but with the game less urgent than it looked like it was going to be, how much anyone will be able to glean from it — one way or the other — remains to be seen.
The Raptors need only one more win or one more Celtics loss to clinch the No. 2 seed, and I’ll just say it — regardless of what Boston does — Toronto, an NBA-best 24-4 since Jan. 15 and riding a seven-game winning streak, won’t lose five straight games.
Will there be any advantage to being the No. 2 seed other than presumably a more favourable first-round matchup?
With no home-court advantage to consider, does it matter whether the Raptors finish ahead of Boston or not?
I mean, how could it possibly, but it’s Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s job to be prepared for all eventualities, so he was allowing for the possibility that earning “home court” could mean something.
“We take the competition seriously,” Nurse said. “When there’s a game to be played, we try to win it, first of all. And the other thing I’d like to say is I’m not sure the home court thing won’t be a little bit of an advantage, maybe.
“It seems like they’re tweaking a little bit more and more as they go here in the games, as they’re learning things about how to put the game on in this setting. We’re seeing familiar faces on those screens, and who knows what it’ll evolve to here two months from now. So I don’t want to discount the home court thing quite yet.”
Still, part of the Raptors’ formula for success is that they don’t have “big” games or “nothing” games. They are determined to treat them all the same.
“Nothing really seems to have a super high level of unimportance or importance,” Nurse said after Toronto’s professional win over the Magic on Wednesday night. “I think we really, again, we want to play, we’re going to play to win. We’re going to play our guys and we’re going to play to win.
“That’s kind of what we get out of bed for every day is to go get ‘em.
“Whether it was a high-leverage game or a little-less-leverage game, we’re going to try to treat it the same from a prep standpoint and an effort standpoint.”
It’s the kind of thing coaches say, but Nurse’s players walk it. It’s how they weathered having so many rotation players out for long stretches of time during the pre-pandemic era and how they’ve used the hiatus to come back healthy, fit and in several cases noticeably individually improved.
It’s why they’re playing a 60-win pace and have emerged from the hiatus as an even better defensive team than they were going into it – and they were second in defensive rating then.
“We are a no-excuse team. I don’t need somebody to tell me to believe in something. You go out there, and you compete, and you can beat anybody,” said Marc Gasol, the Raptors veteran centre who is looking as spry and bouncy as he has at any point in his Raptors career. “It doesn’t take a genius to know we have a lot of pieces and so I don’t need somebody to tell me we can win it. Obviously it’s really hard and it’s a different year, but any given night obviously we can be one of the good teams.”
Normally the Raptors’ Friday night showdown on ESPN against the Celtics would be one of those moments Toronto uses to prove themselves. Not so much any more. They have a ring for that. Whether they’re getting respected or not, they have something to show the world in a “big” game – those external motivators aren’t what get them going right.
“We don’t spend any energy in having that discourse,” said Gasol. “It’s great bar talk. We understand the media has to do that, and it does create a lot of discussion, and that is always great.
“(But) we are not easy to beat, and we believe in ourselves. We have a lot of tools, a lot of players, a lot of great players, and, to me, the best coaching staff you can have in the NBA right now. You have all the pieces, you’ve just got to put them together and have everybody buying in and everybody has to sacrifice a little bit like we do from our own game for the best of the team.
Raptors-Celtics still has a ring to it, but circumstances have dimmed its lustre a little bit.
But it’s on the schedule and the Raptors will play it to win, like always.