TORONTO — Three consecutive games against two Eastern Conference heavyweights.
The Toronto Raptors play in Boston on Saturday, then Cleveland on Tuesday before returning home to host Boston on Wednesday in a tough stretch that’s sure to prompt plenty of playoff hyperbole.
Coach Dwane Casey welcomes the fierce competition so close to the post-season.
"No question, somebody chasing you, pushing you, you feel the footsteps behind you," Casey said. "I think it will help us going into the playoffs, that mentality, keeping that edge. I thought the last couple years we lost it a little bit. Even without (this tough stretch), we should be looking at the big picture and looking at something that is very important, which is the playoffs."
The Raptors (55-20) sit atop the Eastern Conference, three games ahead of Boston, and 10 ahead of Cleveland.
Kyle Lowry shrugged off any suggestion of added significance in the next three games, saying they’re "just two teams we’re competing against."
"Boston we know are right behind us in the standings, Cleveland’s behind us in the standings, but for us we’ve got to continue to just get better. We can’t worry about this, that and the other.
"It’s not resting, it’s having fun and staying in the rhythm, I think that’s the most important thing," he added. "In this situation those teams are still playing for something … so the competitive nature of everyone to keep playing is going to be big for us."
The Celtics have made buzzer-beating an art form this season. On Wednesday, Jaylen Brown scored on a three-pointer with three-tenths of a second on the clock to lift Boston 97-94 over Utah.
"Luck of the Irish, man. That’s what it’s got to be," laughed Fred VanVleet. "I was just talking about it this morning, I don’t know if it’s because they’re on TV so much, … they always win with a buzzer-beater."
The way the regular-season played out could paint a playoff picture much different than everyone predicted when the season tipped off. Critics complained that it would be Golden State versus Cleveland for the NBA title. Again.
Instead, both the Cavs and Warriors have struggled as they’ve dealt with everything from personnel changes to injuries.
"That’s the one thing about the NBA, it’s been unpredictable and you never know what’s going to happen," Lowry said. "Unfortunately now with the Warriors being beaten up a little bit — they’ll be healthy for the playoffs — Cleveland making mass changes and us changing our offence, Boston doing stuff, it is pretty cool about the NBA that things can happen like that.
"It’s fun, man. Our league is fun. As a fan of basketball I like to watch and have fun and enjoy the games. I worry about my team first and foremost but just as a fan of the game, enjoy what’s going on around the NBA in general."
With seven games left in the regular season, the Raptors are one win away from tying their franchise record for wins in a season, set in 2015-16.