Now it’s a potential rivalry with a future. Wednesday night was the latest entry in the battle between two teams closer on the development curve than they look and the Raptors won in as compelling a mid-January game as you’re likely to find. Trying to build reputations for their defence, the teams staged a shootout that the Raptors survived, 115-109, for their season-high sixth straight win.
It was former Raptor Amir Johnson’s first visit back to Toronto but his old friend DeMar DeRozan went out of his way to remind Johnson whose house it was now. DeRozan led all scorers with 34 points, just off his season-high of 35, as he continues to make his case to be included on the Eastern Conference all-star team.
Johnson was warmly welcomed by didn’t really impact the game, finishing with two points and four rebounds in 25 minutes.
But these two teams will be shadowing each other for some time, judging by their current trajectories and the moves that could yet be made.
The parity in the Eastern Conference means that at the moment the majority of the 15 teams in the NBA’s traditionally junior circuit are trying to make the same jump the Toronto Raptors are: from pretty good to good, or good to great.
The opportunity is so close you can touch it. Outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers there is no team clearly positioned to emerge as a consistent challenger for an NBA Finals berth, and based on how the Cavs have conducted themselves at times since the LeBron James homecoming, you have to wonder how sturdy they are as a long-term contender.
A year ago the Chicago Bulls were a hot pick to be that team, but that was predicated on Derrick Rose returning as an NBA force, something that remains in doubt after multiple knee surgeries and countless other scares.
The Miami Heat? They have players with pedigree in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but both players have heavy mileage on their odometers and a suspect supporting cast.
Add it up and the Raptors have as good a chance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference as they’ve ever had in franchise history.
The win improved Toronto to 27-15 and firmed up their hold on the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors looked poised to blow out Boston to really get their current seven-game homestand off on the right foot. They led 28-18 with four minutes left in the first quarter and seemed to have both their offence and defence locked in for once. But then Boston shot 14-of-20 in the second quarter, including 5-of-7 from three and the Celtics took a 62-56 lead into halftime.
DeRozan righted the ship with an 18-point third quarter that was punctuated by a three-point play featuring a prayer after the foul that DeRozan threw up over the 24-second clock that dropped untouched through the rim. It was that kind of night.
The game opened up when Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross hit a pair of late threes to break a 105-105 tie with 3:20 to play, and DeRozan pulled up for two to put Toronto ahead 113-109 with 46 seconds left before Lowry (14 points, 8 assists and six turnovers) finished it with a pair of free throws.
But Boston was up to the test in almost every measure. While LeBron and the Cavaliers are the East’s best team for now, long term – or even in the immediate term – the biggest challenge the Raptors might face is the Celtics, who dropped to 22-21 as they fight it out for the final playoff spot in the East.
And not because they rolled into the ACC with Johnson in the starting lineup; no disrespect to Johnson. It was a nice moment in that it was perhaps the first time in recent memory that a long-serving and well-liked Raptor left as a free agent and was able to return without being the subject of scorn, as has been franchise tradition. Johnson got a heartfelt standing ovation after a video tribute at the start of the second quarter, fitting given the heart-and-soul effort he gave on and off the court during his six years in Toronto.
“It was pretty awesome,” Johnson said. “I got a little teary-eyed.”
But it speaks a little to the place the Raptors are in right now – as well-liked as Johnson was and is, it’s hard to look at the Raptors as constructed and think they would be better off if he was still around.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri had a certain amount of money to spend last summer and had targeted small forward and depth at point guard as his primary areas of need. He passed on the chance to sign Johnson and put his money into Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll, and still had money left over to fill in Johnson’s minutes with Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo – for $6 million combined – and the Raptors haven’t missed a beat.
Meanwhile Johnson is just one of what seems like a cast of dozens of similar players on the Celtics: solid pros who can follow a game plan, but few game or franchise changers.
“One of the reasons the Eastern Conference is so good is all the young teams developing their programs and Boston’s done a great job,” said Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey. “… They’ve added a few pieces but for the most part they’ve grown from within and that’s why the conference is so balanced and Boston is a prime example.”
But the point worth making is that the Celtics’ identity as scrappy underdogs rebuilding incrementally from within could be shattered anytime in the next few weeks and almost certainly by next summer.
They may not have a seasoned scorer like DeRozan to lean on and while tiny Isaiah Thomas is having a season that will earn him some all-star consideration, Lowry is the better player.
Why fear the Celtics then? Because Boston has one of the deepest troves of draft picks this side of the Philadelphia 76ers. Thanks to their decision to cut the cord on the final days of the Kevin Garnett-led championship team of 2008 and send Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2013, Boston is in the driver’s seat for almost any significant trade that could get made before the Feb. 19 NBA trade deadline.
The Celtics have Brooklyn’s first-round pick in 2016 and 2018 and the right to swap firsts with the Nets in 2017. Given the Nets have the third-worst record in the NBA and appear headed for an extended tour of the nether reaches of the league standings, these are incredibly valuable assets. Boston has gathered some other lesser firsts as well.
“I don’t pay attention to it,” said Canadian national team member Kelly Olynyk, who is playing some of the best basketball of his career coming off the bench for the Celtics. He had 18 points in 31 minutes. “All I know is we have too many [draft picks] to count. I feel like we could make a whole new team.”
In other words, if they want to make a run at the likes of DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings? They have the means to top almost any other offer. Same with Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies. Any trade opportunity that pops up between now and the draft in June and the Celtics will likely be in the driver’s seat.
Alternatively, they can simply use the picks and round out their tough, gritty group of role players with the kind of elite talent that is typically only available at the top of the draft lottery. They could pull off the kind of rebuild the Philadelphia 76ers have nearly ruined a franchise for and do it all while making the playoffs.
It underlines how important this season is in Toronto. With DeRozan in full-stride and Lowry in his prime, the conference is wide open. It just might not stay that way for long, and Boston might be the team to watch.
Based on Wednesday night, it could be fun.