BOSTON - One of the big questions entering the 2018-19 season was how the Celtics would respond to a new burden of expectations. The Celtics, with the return of a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, were essentially anointed the team to beat in the East and a red carpet was rolled out to the NBA Finals.
Still, even as the Celtics were being crowned, the Raptors were busy acquiring Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks were salivating for another opportunity to show their young core - headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo - was ready to truly contend. And, this week, the Philadelphia 76ers spiced up their own young roster with the addition of Jimmy Butler.
Entering the showdown Friday night with the visiting Toronto Raptors, the Celtics find themselves in a more familiar position than their lofty preseason billing. Beset by uneven play, the Celtics (8-6) sit tied for third in the East (alongside a Pacers team they lost to at the start of a 1-4 road trip) and the Raptors already own a 3.5-game cushion over the Celtics.
But if we’ve learned anything about these Celtics, it’s that they typically play their best basketball when they have something to prove. They’ve heard the whispers wondering if they are as good as they were made out to be and acknowledge that their play through 14 games has done little to suggest they are.
That could change quickly. Starting with tonight's visit from the Raptors, and continuing with Saturday at home against Utah, the Celtics can quickly reassert themselves as a championship-caliber squad and wash away much of the uneasiness from their uninspired start.
A very agreeable schedule through Christmas should only help the team further build momentum. But tonight's game is a statement game, a chance to not only atone for an early season loss in Toronto, but remind the rest of the league of Boston’s potential.
Maybe that’s why Kyrie Irving’s face lit up Wednesday when asked about the looming matchup with Toronto.
“Obviously, one game at a time, but that’s just a competitor’s dream to be going against the best of the best,” said Irving. “Obviously, early-season when we played them in Toronto it wasn’t who we are now, or what we’re trying to grow into. So I think it’ll just be a great test for us. They have a lot of great players that we all well know. So, just up for the challenge.”
No one is naive enough to think that all that ailed the Celtics was cured in one lopsided win over a lottery-bound Bulls team. But it was a nice jolt of confidence before Friday’s showdown.
Tonight goes beyond the standings and it's much too early to get worked up about how seeding in the East will eventually look. Homecourt advantage is a luxury and something the team can jockey for in March and April. Regardless of tonight's outcome, the Celtics should be there pushing the Raptors and Bucks at the top of the East at season’s end (ESPN’s Basketball Power Index currently projects the Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics to finish with three of the four best records in the NBA, trailing only the Warriors).
Tonight is more a chance for Boston to really lock in, put together the sort of 48-minute effort they’ve so clearly lacked, and remind even themselves of how good they can be.
Boston’s NBA title odds have started slipping. NBA observers are fairly questioning if a healthy Leonard makes the Raptors the true favorite in the East. But just when everyone starts to discount the Celtics is when they typically start to play their best basketball.
Said Irving: “We just have to be up for the challenge. I’m excited for that game.”
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