The Toronto Raptors will visit the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night in a matchup that was once expected to be a battle of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors (33-12) have done their part, leading the conference with the best record in the NBA. The Celtics, meanwhile, are fifth in the East at 25-18, seven games behind.
The clash in Boston comes with the teams moving in opposite directions.
The Raptors have won five in a row after squandering a 23-point lead and surviving double overtime to defeat the Wizards 140-138 in Washington on Sunday. Kawhi Leonard scored 41 points.
The Celtics are returning from a 0-3 road trip that ended Monday with a 109-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a team Boston had defeated in their 10 previous meetings.
The Celtics were without guard Kyrie Irving on Monday because of a tight right quadriceps, but he said he will play against the Raptors. He suffered the injury in a 105-103 loss to the Orlando Magic on Saturday. Celtics guard Marcus Smart also missed the game Monday because he was ill.
The season series between the Raptors and Celtics is tied at 1, with each team winning at home. The Raptors won 113-101 on Oct. 19, and the Celtics won 123-116 in overtime Nov. 16.
Toronto is 14-8 against Boston over the past five seasons and has not lost the season series since 2012-13. The teams have accounted for 12 Atlantic Division titles since 2004-05, with Boston winning seven.
After the Celtics blew a 12-point halftime lead in losing in Orlando, Irving called out his team.
“The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team,” Irving said. “What it takes every day. And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to the finals?”
He said the team must learn to play when there are high expectations for them to succeed, unlike last season when they made the Eastern finals despite an injury to Irving.
“We had nothing to lose and everybody could play free and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations,” Irving said.
Irving expanded on his comments Monday saying, “The responsibility goes all the way around.”
“Part of that is learning but also teaching and then explaining what it actually means to come in and appreciate your job and have a goal in hand that is actually a championship,” he said. “You know, you’ve never gone about it in your career, you’ve never done it, and now you come into a season where the expectations are higher than anything.”
Developing a killer instinct
The Raptors, meanwhile, are trying to develop a killer instinct and not allow big leads to slip away as they did in Washington.
“It’s just focus,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said.
“We shouldn’t lose focus. We have to stay focused on every possession. We lost a little focus and our offense starts to dictate our defense. We can’t do that. We have to let our defense dictate our offense.”
The problem was the other way around for the Celtics on Monday. They trailed by 27 points with 8:55 remaining in the fourth quarter before closing strong.
“I just told the team that I really appreciate the way those guys played in the fourth quarter,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “We were guarding for three quarters (Monday). We chose one of the middle ones to take off. The third-quarter defense was awful.”
–Field Level Media