ORLANDO — It’s difficult to believe these two adversaries have never met in the postseason. Yet from the beginning of the 2019-20 season, when they met in the second game and waged a brutal battle that came down to the final minutes, it’s seemed inevitable.
After the Milwaukee Bucks took off in the Eastern Conference and began padding their Eastern Conference lead, there became a race for the No. 2 seed between the Celtics and Raptors and as early as January it was apparent they would likely meet in the playoffs if each won their first-round series.
Well, here we are. Both teams swept their respective opponents, leaving them more than 72 hours to prepare for each other.
The Raptors are the defending NBA champions, a team that was projected to barely make the playoffs this season because superstar and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left for the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard’s absence only served as motivation for the Raptors, whose overall roster vastly improved along with the savvy coaching of Nick Nurse to turn the club back into a Finals contender.
In all honesty, this Raptors team may be better than the one that beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals because those players who surrounded Leonard during that run all made significant strides. And while there is no playoff history between these two teams, there are plenty of regular-season memories.
The Celtics has never played well at Toronto in the Brad Stevens era, and gaining home-court advantage for this series before the pandemic was important. But that no longer is a factor in this NBA resumption where all games will be on a neutral floor.
The Raptors are a physical and tenacious defensive team with football-player like wings in Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, and bruising center Marc Gasol along with bowling ball point guard Kyle Lowry and streaky scorer Fred VanVleet. The Raptors lock down opponents and then bombard them with 3-pointers.
Toronto gained confidence last season by going 17-5 in games without Leonard and that momentum carried into this season. Meanwhile, VanVleet’s scoring average increased by 6.6 points, Siakam’s increased by 6 points, Anunoby turned himself into a 39 percent 3-point shooter, and Norman Powell averaged 16 points, partly as a reserve.
“I think it’s going to be fun, you saw the games when we played them on Christmas and then we went down there, it’s always back and forth,” Powell said of games against the Celtics. “We’re evenly matched teams. We match up really well. It’s going to be about the guys who play harder and who limit their mistakes and execute.
“It’s going to be a fun series and I’m kind of bummed that we don’t have that fans, that intensity at TD Garden and what our fans bring at Scotiabank [Arena], I think that’s an added element that’s going to be missed but we’ve got two teams that are very deep, very talented and it’s going to take everyone on our end to pull this out.”
Although there is general tension between the franchises because of their proximity and the number of times they meet each season, there is a mutual respect. Lowry’s career 17 points-per-game average and 84 total 3-pointers against the Celtics is the highest against any opponent.
He sprained his left ankle in the Raptors’ Game 4 win over the Brooklyn Nets and his status for Game 1 on Thursday is uncertain. The Raptors can counter, however, with Powell, VanVleet, and rookie Terence Davis. What’s more, the Raptors bench scored an NBA-record 100 points in the win over the Nets.
Nurse, who was named NBA Coach of the Year last week, had nothing but compliments about the Celtics, who dismantled the 76ers in four games.
“It is a little surprising that we’ve never bumped into each other [in the playoffs],” Nurse said. “The second thing is, I think they’re really good. They’re super talented, deep, they’re very well coached. I think they’re playing great at the moment.
“They put away a very talented Philly team with ease, with ease. There was never a doubt really in that series, which way that was going, maybe a little bit in one game. They handled us really good in the bubble here. I’m hoping it’s a great series. We’re going to need to play great to beat them.”
The timing of the previous meetings this season makes it tough to determine how these teams will match up in August. The Celtics eked out a win in October and then beat an injury-plagued Raptors team on Christmas before Toronto won at Boston a few days later.
The Celtics completely dominated Toronto on Aug. 7, 122-100, a game they led by as many as 35 points. It was one of the team’s best performances of the season, and Nurse pulled his starters near the end of the third quarter. So we’ve essentially seen three quarters of these two teams in the past eight months, and both teams have changed dramatically since their previous three meetings, so this matchup should be one of the more intriguing playoff series in the bubble. Two teams that pride themselves on defense and the 3-point shot.
“I think there is plenty to take [from those three games],” Nurse said. “I don’t think you can make any judgments on it. I think both teams are playing pretty well. I think both teams play similarly. There’s some fight. There’s some competitors. There’s some scoring. There’s certainly some defense on both sides of the ball. I think it’s going to be a hell of a series.”
Game 1: Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday (TBD)
Game 3: Monday, Aug. 31 (TBD)
Game 4: Wednesday, Sept. 2 (TBD)
Game 5: Friday, Sept. 4 (TBD)*
Game 6: Sunday, September 6 (TBD)*
Game 7: Tuesday, September 8 (TBD)*
* denotes if necessary