Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which tips off Friday at 6 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call of the game at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.
BOSTON — The Toronto Raptors’ journey towards the franchise’s first NBA title last spring took them to places they had never before experienced, leaving most of us to view them from the lens of disbelief or in the minds of the Raptors’ players, disrespect.
You can kill the disbelief talk because they won it all last season.
But the talk about a lack of respect? That is indeed alive and well right now when it comes to the Raptors.
Which is why, despite the reigning champions coming into town for their first meeting of the season against the Boston Celtics tonight, this game has generated the kind of sizzle you expect from the Celtics hosting a bottom-feeding Western Conference foe rolling into Boston in the middle of December.
The Celtics are saying all the right things about this Raptors team, praising them for their talent and a roster that returns several players from last season’s title run.
But NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard has taken his game out West to the Los Angeles Clippers. Ditto for Danny Green who inked a deal with the Lakers.
More than anything else, the loss of Leonard is why so many are so down on the Raptors this season.
“I hear a lot of people saying, with all the changes this team made, it's going to be different, and we're not going to even make the playoffs,” Toronto’s Serge Ibaka told reporters recently. “Sometimes I just smile because it's not true. We lost Kawhi, we lost Danny, but we still have the same group of champions. Those two weren't the only champions, and now we have the mentality of a champion. We know what it takes to be a champion.”
And the Celtics, in their quest to achieve what the Raptors did last season, understand that Toronto’s roster may be different, but they are still among the teams Boston will have to go through in order to have the kind of successful season they are envisioning.
“We’ll be ready,” Boston’s Marcus Smart told NBC Sports Boston. “We got the defending champs coming in. They like to run; they’re really fast. It’s going to be a great game for us.”
Maybe so, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Raptors are not viewed by most as a major contender this season.
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has the Raptors’ odds of winning it all this season at 100:1, which is tied for the 14th-best odds among NBA teams. Boston is given the ninth-best odds, at 25:1.
That’s why for many Toronto veterans, coming into this season has a same-old, same-old feel about it.
“It’s no different,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet recently told reporters. “This is my fourth year, and three out of four years we’ve been disrespected and counted out and talked bad about. So you learn to deal with it. It doesn’t take any emotion or energy out of my day. I’m not losing sleep over it.”
VanVleet added, “I’m an NBA champion. Nobody can ever take that away.”
Kemba Walker, looking to bounce back from a poor shooting night in Boston’s season-opening loss at Philadelphia on Wednesday, spoke in glowing terms about Toronto and the challenges they present.
“It’s tough games every night in this league,” Walker said. “Toronto, defending champs, really, really good team with some great players. We just have to be … ready to take care of business.”
That has to be the mindset night-in and night-out, but becomes even more imperative when facing the reigning NBA champions — even if they don’t garner the kind of attention most league champs do the following season.
“It’s been the story since I’ve been here,” said Toronto’s Norman Powell. “Every year we’ve been counted out. ‘We’ll be a middle of the pack team, not going to make the playoffs, or we’re going to be a first-round exit.’ This, that and the other, whatever story they come up with. So it’s nothing new. This team’s been there. The team is full of underdogs who want to go out there and prove people wrong.”
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