The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have been fixtures at the top of the Eastern Conference over the last couple of seasons. Boston were supposedly in the ascendancy 12 months ago. Toronto have evolved from the Kyle Lowry–DeMar DeRozan duo to an NBA champion. The Raptors are different again this season, with young talent in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby alongside a veteran core of Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
Boston were favourites in the East for many last year, but they underachieved. The Raptors took a gamble on Kawhi Leonard, which emphatically paid off. As the 2019/20 campaign picks up pace, the two are closer than many would think.
The Celtics struggled against the Sixers on opening night, and their status as third-best in the East isn’t as clear-cut as some expect. Toronto played a thriller against the Pelicans, with VanVleet and Siakam starring.
Walker and Lowry are the only players who made it into last season’s All-Star Game. It might not be long, however, before Siakam is considered the best player across the two teams. The Cameroonian was superb in the playoffs and showed against the Pelicans that he’s ready to become the team’s main scorer.
In Leonard’s absence, the Raptors have been effectively written off in some quarters. Masai Ujiri’s unpredictability does provide uncertainty, but this incarnation of the Toronto Raptors are a playoff team – and a pretty good one at that.
We don’t know what the Celtics will be yet. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have a lot to prove. Enes Kanter’s defence presents a real problem in certain matchups. Walker, for all his brilliance, is a weakness defensively and needs to pass more frequently than he did as a Hornet.
The Raptors placed above the Celtics in our preseason rankings, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Ahead of their Friday night meeting, Boston are the overwhelming favourite to finish third in the East. Beyond Philly and Milwaukee, the East is very fluid and that includes these two teams. Don’t be surprised to see them within a couple of wins of one another come spring.