The price of greatness is responsibility.
That’s what Winston Churchill said once upon a time, although pop culture has made Ben Parker’s sage advice, “with great power comes great responsibility” to Peter Parker ever more popular. Along that same wavelength, the Toronto Raptors — now armed with the claw of Kawhi Leonard and fresh off a 59-win campaign and the top seed in the conference — have been tasked with 27 nationally televised games in the United States: 12 on NBA TV, eight on ESPN and seven on TNT.
The NBA has recognized Toronto as a true contender this year, and standing atop the east side mountain after 82 games has earned them a different type of bull’s-eye. With LeBron James now out of the picture, there is also no “true” Eastern Conference champion. That means there will be more teams than ever before coming for the lone Canadian team’s head over the course of the season, a team that now presents itself as a measuring stick for its opponents.
Here are six teams who fit that bill to a T, and will help define who the Raptors are heading into — presumably — the post-season.
All-time H2H: Boston leads 52-37.
2017-18 season series: 2-2.
2018-19 dates: Oct. 19 (H), Nov. 16 (A), Jan. 16 (A), Feb. 26 (H)
After a couple of years of scratching and clawing, both teams appear ready to take full-blooded swings at each other until, as many expect, someone lands the knockout blow in the Conference Finals. There’s a long way to go before that, though, and the four games these two sides play against each other will be packed with intrigue.
The Raptors and Celtics already know each other inside-out, but Leonard, Gordon Hayward and Danny Green are all new characters added to the mix, making things quite a bit different this season. For one, the Raptors will go into every game with the best player across both rosters. Leonard has already shown flashes of his old self in pre-season and as long as he maintains his upward trajectory, he looks every bit the player that was firmly entrenched in the running for MVP in 2016-17.
If Hayward can return to the player he was for Utah as well, Boston’s starting five may just be second only to Golden State. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will look to build on the success of last year, and their ceiling — despite the impressive Bench Mob of Toronto — could be the difference in the series.
The Celtics also figure to have the coaching edge. Brad Stevens has established himself as one of the best in the business while rookie Nick Nurse will have his work cut out for him to show he’s ready to spar on that level.
All-time H2H: Toronto leads 51-37.
2017-18 season series: 3-1, Raptors.
2018-19 dates: Oct. 30 (H), Dec. 5 (H), Dec. 22 (A), Feb. 5 (A)
The new kids on the block are here to take down the old guard. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are equal parts fascinating and terrifying. They are each as unique a physical specimen as you will find, and while the Cameroonian showed his ability to singlehandedly carry a team two seasons ago, the Australian returned the favour over the final stretch of last season, when the Sixers won their final 16 games of the regular season, including the final nine in Embiid’s absence.
The fact that Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are notable losses from their roster a season ago shows the overall lack of shooting, which could possibly be a factor in moving J.J. Redick to the bench. Markelle Fultz is the X-factor.
Adding some spice to the matchup is Kyle Lowry‘s ejection from last season, when the Philadelphia native showed he had his former teammate Jakob Poeltl’s back.
Simmons wasn’t one to back down, though.
All-time H2H: Milwaukee leads 48-37
2017-18 season series: 2-1, Raptors.
2018-19 dates: Oct. 29 (A), Dec. 9 (H), Jan. 5 (A), Jan. 31 (H)
Kawhi vs. Giannis four times is enough to make any basketball fan drool. These two teams have squared off once in the post-season, and it was the depth of Toronto — namely Norman Powell — that proved to be the difference in the end.
The Raptors will enter this season with that same advantage, but the Bucks lose the honour of having the best player in the series. The departure of Jabari Parker could be addition by subtraction, with Khris Middleton likely ready for a bigger role and Malcolm Brogdon returning to full health. They also have a highly respected coach in Mike Budenholzer now, making for a great matchup all around.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
All-time H2H: Los Angeles leads 28-15
2017-18 season series: 2-0, Raptors.
2018-19 dates: Nov. 4 (A), Mar. 14 (H)
It seems as though the Raptors and King James will be inextricably linked for the remainder of the latter’s career. The Raptors have suffered 10 straight playoff defeats to the man, but the two matchups this season will provide great perspective of exactly why Toronto made their big trade.
Leonard presents arguably the best matchup problem for LeBron, allowing Nurse to scheme in a way Dwane Casey never had the personnel to. The battle of James’ brain against Nurse’s will be a captivating one, too, what with Nurse always ready to throw new looks at him and test all the combinations James can come up with to solve them.
All-time H2H: Houston leads 25-20.
2017-18 season series: 2-0, Raptors.
2018-19 dates: Jan. 25 (A), Mar. 5 (H)
It was just two years ago when Kawhi Leonard squared up against James Harden late in the season in a battle for MVP. It’s the type of moment the greats of the game seize, and with those exquisitely large hands, clasp them Leonard did.
The Rockets lost both Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, names that allowed the Rockets to colour along the edges while James Harden and Chris Paul gave life to the big picture. Despite the skepticism, it remains to be seen what Carmelo Anthony will offer.
Toronto took the season series a year ago with OG Anunoby doing a spectacular job on Harden in Houston (while Paul was injured it must be said) before taking care of home court 108-105 in one of the best games of the season.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
All-time H2H: Golden State leads 28-15.
2017-18 season series: 2-0, Warriors.
2018-19 dates: Nov. 29 (H), Dec. 12 (A)
Sure, it can’t really be a rivalry if you haven’t had a strong level of back-and-forth during the regular season and have never met in the playoffs, but the two games against the Warriors before the new year could allow the team to stake their claim as championship contenders.
The Celtics have received plenty of adulation for the manner in which they’ve defended the Warriors the past few seasons, and the Raptors have a golden opportunity to show that anything Boston can do, they can do better. They’ve had some fun, close games against the defending champs but haven’t come away with the cigar, and Drake has always brought his A-game to this outing as well.
Let’s not forget, it was against the Warriors in the 2017 playoffs that it all started crumbling down between Leonard and the Spurs so revenge may be on his mind, too.
With apologies to…
– The Washington Wizards. The first-round playoff sweep they held onto for three years is now a distant memory after the Raptors dispatched them in convincing fashion in April. The additions of Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers improves their depth compared to last season, but these moves are still a notch below what Masai Ujiri did with his summer.
– The San Antonio Spurs. The two games will undoubtedly be a ton of fun for fans, there’ll be DeMar DeRozan looking for revenge with Rudy Gay as his sidekick and Leonard probably looking to make a statement. But, the injuries to Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV combined with the departures of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will leave them well short of the Raptors’ expected level.