The Boston Celtics were coming for the Toronto Raptors’ place as the No. 2 team in the Eastern Confernece. All through the offseason, this was the chatter, and the market seemed to be backing up that Boston was a threat. Canada Sports Betting sites had the Raptors and Celtics pegged for similar win totals, which made some sense. Boston even had better odds of winning the conference or making a title push, which, sure, fine.
A lot of that buzz, though, was about the future potential of the Celtics. Yes, they added Al Horford in free agency, which was a massive addition, but they also have a ridiculous number of additional draft assets to dangle in a deal. Horford pushed them much higher, and the threat of general manager Danny Ainge cashing in those trade chips for another star piece may have given the impression the Celtics were further along in the building process than they actually are at the present moment.
To wit, the Raptors played anything but their best game on Friday, on the second night of a back-to-back, and made a rousing second-half comeback to steal a victory in Boston. It’s just one game, and neither side was at its best – Isaiah Thomas sat for Boston, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Sullinger, Delon Wright, and Bruno Caboclo for Toronto – but if the Celtics were looking at the Raptors as a potential measuring stick, they came up short. Thomas is putting up career-best numbers and is a major loss for an offense that gets sticky without him, but it’s not as if the Celtics were rendered woefully thin here. Horford is starting to settle in with his new role quite nicely, and the Celtics entered play ahead of schedule on offense but behind on the defensive side of the ball. The Raptors, meanwhile, continue doing what they do, taking care of every lesser opponent (other than the Sacramento Kings) while struggling to beat the teams ahead of them on the pecking order.
It’s that pecking order that’s once again worth discussing after Toronto’s victory. Jae Crowder claimed in July that the Celtics weren’t worrying about the Raptors, because the Eastern Conference Finals, and thus the Cleveland Cavaliers, was their goal. That’s fine, and Crowder’s comments weren’t intended to be nearly as inflammatory as some took them, I don’t think. Carroll’s retort that the comments sounded like they came from someone who hasn’t been through the playoff grind – Carroll’s gone to back-to-back conference finals, remember – was appropriate, and seems even more prescient now.
That’s not because the one win means Toronto has Boston’s number, or anything like that. But again, the Celtics getting priced up had a lot to do with what could happen in February, or at least how this team may look in April. They’re still young, they’re still figuring out how to turn a ton of terrific individual defenders into a great team defense, and they’re still figuring out the best way to stagger Thomas and Horford to ensure a weaker-scoring bench doesn’t go long stretches with little scoring. These things take time, sometimes even seasons, as the Raptors are quite keenly aware. It is reductive to say that a team can’t claim to be better than another until they’ve proven it, but in this case, the perception that Boston was on Toronto’s level likely jumped the gun. Toronto is second in the NBA in net rating, even when adjusting for schedule, and they have an elite offense with something resembling a potentially average defense. They’re very good, young, and still growing. The Celtics are going to keep getting better, too, but the gap isn’t as narrow as the three games between them in the standings might suggest.
And the market is changing its mind some. The Celtics are now a +3300 bet to win the championship after opening at +2500, the market apparently cool on their 13-10 start, a start that’s understandably slow given the big new piece and some injury trouble. The Raptors’ hot start has led some to buy in ever so slightly, with their line moving from +3000 to +2800. Essentially, the Raptors are now slightly more favored to make an unlikely title run than the Celtics, which is a nice tip of the cap to their performance so far.
Still, the threat of another Celtics addition looms. They own the right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets in the vaunted 2017 draft, an asset to dangle that could bring a 25-percent promise of the No. 1 pick and a guarantee of a top-five selection by the time the trade deadline rolls around. They also own Brooklyn’s pick in 2018 outright and have a wealth of other additional trade assets, plus intriguing young players like Jaylen Brown.
Raptors fans are fond of dreaming on potential trade scenarios for DeMarcus Cousins or Paul Millsap or another trade target du jour, and while they have some assets – Norman Powell is on a dirt-cheap deal, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas still possess some upside, and there is no shortage of picks – Toronto’s assets pale in comparison to Boston’s. The hope, then, has to be that Boston once again fails to pull the trigger on a major deal, continuing to roll their assets over in perpetuity.
Because without another splash, the Celtics just aren’t on Toronto’s level yet.