COMMENTARY | Over the past 12 seasons, the Toronto Raptors have found themselves looking up at the Boston Celtics in the standings every year except in 2006-2007, when Paul Pierce spent nearly half the season recovering from an injury and Boston was trying to tank the year in the hopes of landing the number one draft pick in 2007 draft (yeah, that worked out real well). Since the arrival of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007-2008, the Celtics have absolutely dominated the Atlantic Division, holding the best record each season except last year, when the aging team finally took that big step backwards everyone had been waiting for since 2010. In contrast, the Raptors have only won the division once over that span and have consistently struggled against Boston, a team which still managed to beat them last year in three out of four meetings despite a lackluster season.
Now that the Celtics have finally entered full rebuilding mode and the Raptors have made some big adjustments to their roster, 2013-2014 should prove to be one where Toronto finally surpasses Boston and even competes for a playoff berth. The following five reasons explain why:
1. Toronto's strong second half
After Toronto acquired NBA star Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies in January of 2013, the Raptors managed to finish the season at an 18-18 record, only one game worse than the Celtics over their last 36 games. Now that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are no longer with the club, it's hard to imagine Boston outplaying Toronto over the course of the season.
2. The Raptors had a winning record against playoff teams down the stretch
At the end of March and in early April, Toronto managed to win seven of their last eight games, beating the Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, and Brooklyn Nets once and the Chicago Bulls twice. The Raptors finished the year playing their best basketball, which is always a good sign for a young team looking to build a culture of winning. If they can find a way to carry that success they found at the end of the season over into 2013-2014, they will be stiff competition for one of the bottom three playoff spots.
3. Jonas Valanciunas is ready for a breakout season
It's easy to forget about Valanciunas, the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. After playing the first year after the draft for a professional club in his home country of Lithuania, Valanciunas was relegated to backup duty for the recently departed Andrea Bargnani in 2012-2013. Now that Bargnani is gone, Valanciunas has the opportunity at only 21-years-old to get consistent minutes in a starting role, which should be good news for the Raptors judging by his performance throughout March. In 15 games, 14 of which he played in as a starter, Valanciunas averaged 11.4 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, a shooting percentage of .620 and he managed to average over one block per game in limited minutes. This season should provide more consistent minutes, allowing Valanciunas' numbers to increase and his game to develop further.
While the Boston Celtics do have a promising big man of their own, Kelly Olynyk, it's unlikely that the rookie will be able to keep up with Valanciunas on the floor in head-to-head matchups at this point in his career, and most scouts still project Valanciunas to have a better career than Olynyk.
4. Who can keep up with DeMar DeRozan?
DeMar DeRozan seems to get better every year for the Raptors. He improved his shooting percentage, average points per game, rebounding, assists, free-throw percentage and three-point percentage in 2012-2013, and there is no reason to believe that DeRozan, who just turned 24-years-old on August 7, can't continue to improve his skills over the next couple of seasons.
Additionally, the Celtics are going to struggle defending the young guard in head-to-head contests because DeRozan, at 6'7" and 220 pounds, is significantly larger than either Avery Bradley or Courtney Lee, the two players most likely to matchup with DeRozan. Throw into the mix that Boston also has to find a way to stop Rudy Gay and keep up with the scoring of both Raptors perimeter players and you have a recipe for disaster for Celtics fans.
5. Too many question marks for Boston
As many reasons as there are for why Toronto should have a strong season, there are even more reasons to question the upcoming year for the Celtics. For starters, it's not clear when All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is going to return from a torn ACL; Celtics forward Jared Sullinger recently suggested that it's possible Rondo won't be back in playing shape until December. If this timetable is correct, it will be very hard for Boston to keep up with the Raptors in the playoff hunt.
Other concerns include recent legal troubles for Jared Sullinger, a key part of team success in 2013-2014, the inconsistency of Jeff Green last year, the looming possibility of another major trade and the leadership void left by departing captain Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Boston still has the opportunity to produce a quality season in 2013-2014, but all signs point toward the Toronto Raptors finally having a season where they outperform the Celtics and possibly make the playoffs as well.
Don't agree with me? Tell me why I am wrong on Twitter @THATCelticsGuy
Justin Haskins is a New England native and a freelance journalist. He has been obsessively following Boston professional sports for 10 years and has been published in numerous online publications and websites.
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- Boston Celtics
- Toronto Raptors
- Kevin Garnett
- Paul Pierce