BOSTON – They were the chosen ones, anointed as the likely and worthy successors to the Eastern Conference throne vacated by whatever team LeBron James played on for the past eight years.
For the Boston Celtics and those watching, the math was simple.
Even over the course of an injury-plagued 2017-18 season where they played just two minutes with all-star free agent signing Gordon Hayward and in which newly acquired Kyrie Irving had missed the final month of the regular season and the entire playoffs, the Celtics had grinded out 55 wins and pushed James’ Cavaliers to seven games in the conference finals.
With Hayward recovered from a broken leg and Irving back in form after off-season knee surgery, coupled with another year of experience from an impressive core of young talent headlined by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, how could the Celtics miss?
Not only did Boston project to be the best team in the East, they were seen as legitimate challengers for the NBA title, regardless of who emerged from the West.
But then the ball went up and things started going wrong – or at least not exactly right.
The meeting between the Toronto Raptors and the Celtics at TD Garden on Wednesday night isn’t a battle for top dog in the East with half the season already played. It’s the NBA’s top team, Toronto, facing fifth-placed Boston, losers of three straight and already seven games out of first. Far from dominant in the East, Boston would be on the road if the playoffs started today.
Naturally, no one drawing a Raptors pay cheque is buying into the idea that the Celtics can be easily had.
"They are still a heavyweight in the East," Raptors shooting guard Danny Green said Tuesday as Toronto wrapped up practice at Northeastern University. "Obviously, they have had some injuries. They are still waiting on some guys – we are too. Regardless of those facts, they are still a very good ball club and can play at a high level. Even though they have lost some games and have been up and down, they are still a heavyweight in the East and we got to go out there and respect them and play like that."
Why, of course.
But some of the Celtics’ struggles serve to emphasize how well the Raptors’ instant-chemistry experiment has worked out, with Toronto posting a 33-12 record through 55 games, good for 1.5-game lead over Milwaukee in the East.
Although some of the nuances are different, the Raptors and Celtics each effectively added two new starters – Green and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto’s case – to an already accomplished core and upended otherwise successful rotations.
But with the exception of a few stumbling blocks – a difficult, compressed schedule through most of December and into the new year coinciding with a wide-ranging injury bug – the Raptors have been remarkably consistent.
They’ve only lost three games in a row once, and if they win on Wednesday night they’ll have recorded their fourth winning streak of at least six games.
Why haven’t things gone wrong in Toronto?
"We got a good team, man," is Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry’s assessment. "To be honest with you, we have a good team, we have a bunch of guys who want to win, guys who are smart enough to understand the situation that’s going to happen.
"I think that’s it. We have a bunch of guys who can step up, guys who understand their roles, that sometimes you need more, sometimes you need less and I think that’s it. All those things accumulate to make a good team."
The Celtics have a good team too – they may yet prove to be a great one. Even with their struggles, they are second in the NBA in net-rating at +5.8 points per 100 possessions, nestled between league-leading Milwaukee and third-place Golden State. The Raptors are seventh (+4.9) in what is typically deemed a fairly predictive measure of team success.
But for now, Boston is going through some things. On Thursday, Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown got in a mild scuffle during a timeout with Morris shoving Brown in the chest and Brown being subdued by Marcus Smart as the Celtics were getting blown out by the Miami Heat. On Saturday, cameras caught an agitated Irving arguing with head coach Brad Stevens during a late-game timeout and then calling out Hayward for failing to get him the ball on an inbounds play with Boston trailing by two in their final possession in a loss to the Orlando Magic.
At that point issues began bubbling to the surface, with Irving borrowing from his old teammate LeBron James’ script and calling out his younger teammates for a lack of consistent effort and focus (a view seconded by veteran Al Horford) while Brown – whose role has been marginalized after a breakout second season with the return of Hayward – spoke up on behalf on the team’s younger players.
The next night, with Irving sitting out due to a quad strain, the Celtics trailed by 24 to the Brooklyn Nets after three quarters to fall to 10-13 on the road.
But far from seeing a team flailing, the Raptors see an opponent that will eventually find their way. They know from their own experience.
"I think it’s such a fine line in this league – and not just this league, just in professional sports, I think – in how chemistry comes and goes, and et cetera," says Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "Maybe it’s even more pronounced in basketball because one guy’s 20 per cent of who’s on the floor, right, so it’s a bigger chunk of the chemistry pie, I guess. I don’t know, our guys have just fit in, right? … Danny and Kawhi are really good pros, who are also really good players and they care about winning, Serge and Pascal care about winning, and we know Kyle does with the way he plays."
But nothing stays constant. Problems always bubble up. It’s how they are dealt with that’s telling.
It was not even two weeks ago that Toronto went to San Antonio and were absolutely smashed on national television as former Raptor DeMar DeRozan got his first career triple-double and revenge against his old team while Leonard was largely abandoned in his return to San Antonio. It capped a long stretch of mediocrity where the Raptors were 9-8 over the course of four-plus weeks and briefly slipped out of first in the East.
The Raptors haven’t lost since. What happened?
"We got our ass kicked," says Green. "The best way to learn is to get your ass kicked sometime and figure it out. If we don’t want to keep letting that happen so we want to play better basketball and not embarrass ourselves on national television, we have to figure out a way. It starts with our guys; our leaders, and I think our leaders have done a great job since that point. Not just guys who are vocal leaders but guys who are our leaders on the court. I think since that game you can see there is a big change. How they have read certain plays and certain things and made things contagious for us to be playing more positive, free basketball."
Green is right. In their five-game surge which includes impressive wins against Milwaukee and Indiana – second and third in the East, respectively – the Raptors assist percentage is 63.6, which is fifth in the NBA, compared with 53.7 and 29th over the month and a bit they were struggling.
"It gave us a little bit of a wakeup call," says Nurse. "… I certainly love the response that we’ve got since getting our doors blown off. We’ve responded very well, we’ve played very well, feel like we got a lot of swagger back and feel like we think we’re a good team when we step on the floor, and we play like it."
Going through a rough December and culminating with the debacle in San Antonio should be a good thing, in Green’s view. Teams need hard times to come together.
"You need adversity. That comes in many types of shapes, sizes and forms," he says. "Whether it’s in the locker room, whether it’s injuries or whether shooting or on the court or coaching style. Whatever it may be. There has to be some adversity to help you build that character, that chip, that mindset and that maturity for when it’s crunch time down the stretch of the season where we’re in games and you can prepare for it."
Which is why the Raptors are approaching their date in Boston – where a win would improve Toronto’s record to 2-1 against the Celtics with one game remaining in their four-game seasons series – warily.
They don’t see a team under-achieving, ready to be had. They see a team loaded with talent, going through tough times, that will eventually find their way.
They just hope it doesn’t happen Wednesday night.