Heading into Friday night’s matchup, the Raptors and Celtics—the No. 2 and 3 seed in the Eastern Conference—are on pace to meet each other in the second round of the playoffs. There’s still plenty of basketball before we get there, but it’s certainly something Raptors fans have been thinking about since the season was suspended indefinitely in March.
The Raptors have never really had an extended rivalry with any one team. They played the Knicks in back-to-back postseasons, but it was in the first round. Before last year’s championship run, the most memorable playoff series for the franchise came in 2001 against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, but the two teams didn’t see each other again in the postseason for almost two decades.
Other teams with whom Toronto has a playoff history with, including the Wizards, Nets, Cavaliers and Bucks, also don’t quite register as rivals (in Milwaukee’s case, at least not yet, although another Eastern Conference final matchup at Disney World could change things).
The Boston Celtics fit the profile perfectly to become Toronto’s rival team for several reasons. The most obvious one has nothing to do with basketball. The two cities have simply been sports rivals across other major sports since the beginning of time, from the Maple Leafs and Bruins (I’m going to assume nobody needs a primer on the recent playoff matchups between the two franchises). As AL East teams, the Blue Jays and Red Sox have their own history too (Shoutout Roger Clemens and John Farrell).
The Raptors and Celtics have never met in the postseason, but it does feel like they’ve been circling each other for the past decade, as the architects of both teams—Danny Ainge and Masai Ujiri—have worked year-to-year to build a long-term foundational core, but also to compete for a championship.
The Celtics jump-started their rebuild with a 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets which netted them three first-round picks and the right to another first-round pick swap in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Raptors’ path to the championship can be traced all the way back to Ujiri’s first major move as the general manager, when he traded Andrea Bargnani for a first-round pick. Several months later, a non-trade—Knicks owner James Dolan nixing a Kyle Lowry deal—set the course for Lowry to become an NBA champion and the greatest Raptor of all-time.
Toronto and Boston eventually charted similar courses, as two teams primed to challenge LeBron James’ reign in the East. The Raptors lost in three consecutive postseasons to James and the Cavaliers, while the Celtics came within one game of advancing past Cleveland in the Eastern Conference final two seasons ago.
Aside from being next to each other in the standings, there are similarities with where the Raptors and Celtics are this season. Both teams lost a superstar player which they were hoping to build a long-term core around in Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard. In Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston, and Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet in Toronto, both teams have a core group of young players who look like foundational pieces moving forward.
Raptors fans have always felt the American media has overlooked them, even in a season where they’ve surprised everyone as defending champions, and a lot of times the attention Toronto deserves has gone to Boston. Brad Stevens has been praised as a top head coach in the league for years, yet it was Nick Nurse who came in as a rookie head coach and won a championship. Ainge has been praised as a general manager capable of retooling the roster while simultaneously contending, but it was Ujiri who brought a title to Toronto while still using a Blackberry.
Put all of the reasons above together, and you understand why it feels like the Raptors and Celtics have an opportunity to not just settle a lot of the ongoing arguments and comparisons between the two organizations in the playoffs at Disney World, but also why a playoff matchup feels like it could jumpstart a true rivalry between the two teams.
The best part of it all? For old times sakes, we’ll probably have virtual Paul Pierce sitting front row to watch it all unfold.
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