ORLANDO. — The Celtics enter their bubble matchup with the Raptors Friday with no chance at catching Toronto for the No. 2 seed in the East, which would have given them an easier first-round playoff matchup.
That doesn’t mean, however, that this game isn’t important to the Celtics’ psyche, especially since they’ll likely face the Raptors in the playoffs if each team wins its first-round series.
Toronto has been the best team so far in the bubble. The Raptors have rolled off impressive wins over the Lakers, Heat, and Magic. They are serious contenders to come out of the East.
But the Raptors feel like a disrespected bunch. They won the NBA title last season and then lost superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers in free agency. The consensus was that they would have a shot at the seventh seed this season because they made no free agent additions.
They were basically running out the same team without Leonard. Overlooked was the fact that the Raptors were 17-5 last seasonwhen Leonard missed games because of load management. And they returned improved, especially forward Pascal Siakam and guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto is also one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
The Raptors are playing not like a defending champion but like a team that wants to prove its run was just not a Kawhi production.
The perception that Leonard swooped in and led a bunch of underachievers to the title angers the Raptors, and they are taking out that frustration on opponents. They spanked the Lakers in their bubble opener, sending a message to the rest of the NBA, including the Celtics, that they are a legit contender.
“I think the outside noise don’t really matter to us,” Siakam said. “We focus on us and try to get wins, that’s all we care about.
“We played a lot of games without Kawhi, so we know what we’re capable of. I think obviously people stepped up and we got better as a team, but I just think that we have a lot of guys that have chips on their shoulders to go out there and play. We’re not worried about nothing else, to be honest, but winning.
“All the guys that won the championship last year have been there for a couple of years and have that chemistry and I think that’s important.”
Brad Stevens’s team struggled with the Raptors before this season, going 9-15 in his first seven years. This season, the Celtics are 2-1 vs. Toronto, winning a highly-contested game Oct. 25 and then posting a 16-point Christmas Day win against a shorthanded club.
Since Jan. 15, the Raptors are 24-4, and they began that run with a 15-game winning streak. They essentially snatched the No. 2 seed from the wobbly Celtics before the pandemic, and the Celtics now have a chance to test their mettle in a nationally-televised matchup Friday.
Boston is 2-2 in these seeding games, coming off a much-needed 149-115 win over the injury-riddled Nets Wednesday. The matchup against the Raptors will serve as a good opportunity to see how they fare against an elite team — a chance to prove to themselves that they can not only play with a title contender (which they did Friday against Milwaukee) but beat one.
“I think we’ve had moments of playing good basketball, not enough,” Stevens said. “We talked about that in pretty good detail. We wanted to play well on both ends. I thought there were a lot of encouraging things but we’ve got to keep going with it and building off of it.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse came to Boston for that October game knowing his club was being picked to finish among the lower half of the Eastern Conference playoff teams. He told reporters, “We’re just going to try to win some games without Kawhi.”
But the crafty coach knew something.
“Going back to last year was a good test for 22 games of playing without Kawhi,” Nurse said. “So we knew we had something there. Most of those games, we had 30-plus assists and the defense was good, so we knew we had a chance to having something there.
“I think, again, there was some growth. Pascal grows, Norman [Powell] grows, Freddy, Serge [Ibaka] is having a great year, Kyle [Lowry] is up 6 points a game, so it’s kind of evolved into a pretty good team.”
The Celtics entered this season knowing they would have to unseat the Bucks to win the East, but the Raptors have proven to be just as formidable an opponent. Boston could use Friday’s matchup as a chance to send a message as well as collect data for what could be an epic Eastern Conference semifinal series if the Celtics are up to the challenge.