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TORONTO – Of the contenders in the Eastern Conference besides Boston, there is no bigger wild card than the Toronto Raptors.
They could be just one of the eight teams in the East playing in the postseason, or they could finish with the best record in the conference for the second year in a row and do what no Toronto Raptors team has ever done and that’s get to the NBA Finals.
That’s a wide range of possibilities for sure.
But it speaks volumes as to what this season is about for the Raptors.
And it can be summed up in two words: Kawhi Leonard.
The two-time All-Star demanded a trade from San Antonio and got his wish although few outside the Raptors organization envisioned Leonard winding up in Toronto.
And while the sample size is about as small as it gets (one game), early indications are that Leonard’s acclamation to his new team and a new city has gone relatively smooth thus far.
He led the Raptors with a double-double of 24 points and 12 rebounds in their 116-104 win against Cleveland.
Danny Green has been a teammate of Leonard’s since 2011 – first in San Antonio and now this season in Toronto.
Knowing all too well about the long layoff for Leonard, Green has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly Leonard has picked up where he left off prior to a quads injury that limited him to just nine games last season in San Antonio.
“He’s farther along than I expected him to be,” Green said. “I still know he’s not himself. It’s going to take him at least a month to be his old self and get into a rhythm. You might see spurts sooner than that.”
While the injuries are different, the Boston Celtics have a couple of elite players on a similar track in terms of re-acclimating themselves to playing after missing significant time last season.
Kyrie Irving (knee infection) and Gordon Hayward (left ankle/leg) were out during Boston’s entire postseason run last season.
Although Boston easily defeated Philadelphia 105-87 in the opener earlier this week, neither player had a great game.
Irving finished with seven points on 2-for-14 shooting which ranks among the worst shooting games of his career.
“Kyrie’s never going to have a game like that, probably,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “And that’s – you know, everybody’s been talking about Gordon being gone for twelve months, but Kyrie’s been out for six. And I had no intention of really restricting him minutes-wise, but it’s probably not all bad to play 29 in that first one and get your feet underneath you and get ready to go from here.”
Speaking of Hayward, he made his Celtics debut at the TD Garden on Tuesday and scored 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting to go with five rebounds and a career high-tying four steals.
The 6-foot-8 forward missed all but five minutes of last season following a left ankle/leg injury in the opener at Cleveland.
He acknowledged after the game that there were some thoughts about his shortened first season in Boston a year ago.
“Yeah it definitely crossed my mind, especially warming up and running out through the tunnel,” Hayward said. “Just thought about maybe not doing any back door plays this game. It for sure went through my mind. It was a major part of my life at this point in time so I tried to just get that out of my head as soon as I started playing and once you’re out there on the court some of that disappears.”
With that, the focus returns to what really matters: winning games.
And one of Boston’s stiffest challengers in doing that this season, is the Toronto Raptors.
While all agree that it’s just one of the earlier challenges in an 82-game regular season schedule, the fact that it is an opponent within the division and it features two teams in the hunt for a trip to the NBA Finals, makes it a little more than just any old regular season tilt.
“It’s a game, it’s a tough game, it’s a great test, it’s a challenge,” said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse. “It is a little more important than playing a team from the West … we hope that we’re in this chase."
Nurse added, “Everybody up and down the league is in agreement that they’re the best team in the East, right? Everybody keeps saying that, and they’re picked to go to the Finals and all that kind of stuff and we hope that we’re in that race with them.”
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