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Winning a championship changed everything for the Toronto Raptors.
The NBA officially unveiled the regular season schedule for the 2019-20 season on Monday, and for once, the Raptors are featured on all of the important dates. The reigning champions will receive their championship rings on opening night (Oct. 22, 8 pm ET) against the New Orleans Pelicans, and will host their second-ever appearance on Christmas Day against the Boston Celtics (12 pm ET).
Here are five must-see games for the 2019-2020 season:
One: Raptors vs. Pelicans — Oct. 22 (8 pm ET)
It certainly won’t come cheap, but get ready to empty the wallet on opening night. Not only will the Raptors raise their first championship banner, but it will also mark the professional debut of No. 1 pick Zion Williamson.
Expect emotions to run high after a summer of spectacular highs and daunting lows. This will be the last time for Toronto to celebrate their trophy, and even without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, it should still be an electric scene at the Scotiabank Arena as Kyle Lowry and company receive their hard-earned championship rings. Given his flair for the dramatic, odds are good that Masai Ujiri will also take the mic for one of his poignant speeches.
As for the game itself, it should be a fascinating contests as both teams will be vying to establish their new identities. Nick Nurse’s side will have to play a more democratic style of offense with Leonard out of the picture, while the Pelicans will have to marry their incoming veterans (J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors) with their influx of young talent (Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram). Odds are that the Raptors will emerge victorious on their home floor, but Jrue Holiday has historically been a thorn in the Raptors’ side.
Two: Raptors vs. Clippers — Dec. 11 (7 pm ET)
Leonard’s return to Toronto promises to be another emotional roller coaster, as the beloved hero from the Raptors’ championship run will be making his first and only appearance up north to collect his ring.
Given his Jordanesque contribution to the title, it’s a safe bet that the home faithful will give Leonard the rousing ovation that he deserves. There might be a dissenting handful in attendance with spurned feelings from the way Leonard and his representatives dragged out the free agency process, but they will likely be in the minority. For the most part, Leonard will be showered with gratitude, and it will not be a repeat of his vitriolic return to San Antonio.
The Raptors will be extremely motivated to win this game. As Fred VanVleet vowed during the free agency process, Leonard can either stay and defend his title, or he could leave and his former teammates will be looking to “kick his ass.” Toronto will be the underdogs, but expect pride to kick in as the rest of the Raptors will want to show that they also played a hand in delivering the title. Here’s hoping that Leonard doesn’t load manage this game (this one doesn’t fall on a back-to-back, but the Clippers will be in the midst of a six-game road trip).
Three: Raptors vs. Celtics — Dec. 25 (12 pm ET)
Traditionally, the NBA would schedule a rematch of the Finals on Christmas Day, but given Leonard and Kevin Durant’s departures, the match-up lacked punch. Instead, the Raptors take on the Celtics to kick off a five-game slate.
Toronto’s rivalry with Boston is, admittedly, one-sided. There was Paul Pierce kicking Chris Bosh in the groin, Kevin Garnett walking on all fours to mock Jose Calderon, Gerald Green’s last-second windmill, and more recently, Jae Crowder nailing a buzzer-beating three at TD Garden. Sure, DeMar DeRozan exacted a measure of revenge with his poster dunk on Kelly Olynyk but Boston has generally had the upper hand. (Let’s not even discuss the emotional turmoil the Bruins have exacted on the Maple Leafs).
This one promises to be a fair fight. The Celtics have a superstar in Kemba Walker (who has his own history of breaking hearts in Toronto) but they’re extremely light on centers and the Raptors should score with ease on the interior. Given that both the Celtics and Raptors will likely be fighting for home court in the playoffs, there’s plenty on the line beyond bragging rights.
Four: Raptors vs. 76ers — Dec. 5 (7:30 pm ET)
The Sixers will be favoured in this rematch of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but the Raptors should use this game as a measuring stick.
Provided that Ujiri keeps the roster intact through Christmas — which isn’t a given with three expiring veterans in the lineup — the Raptors can look to this game as an honest assessment of how they stack up against the East’s elite and use that to inform their approach ahead of the trade deadline.
Past that, this game will also serve as the Raptors’ annual celebration of Nelson Mandela on the sixth anniversary of his passing. Ujiri sees it as his personal mission to honor Mandela, and there is always a fabulous gala on the night prior to the game that attracts several A-list celebrities.
Five: Raptors vs. Grizzlies — Mar. 30 (7:30 pm ET)
Who doesn’t love a reunion? Although it will be over a year since the trade, expect Scotiabank Arena to give former fan favourite Jonas Valanciunas a hearty ovation in his first return as an opponent. Valanciunas will get his much-deserved ring after spending his first seven seasons in Toronto, and he will have a chance to exact revenge against Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
Two nights prior, the Raptors will play the first half of their home-and-home in Memphis where Gasol will also receive a hero’s welcome. The veteran Spaniard is a beloved franchise icon, so much so that an abundance of Grizzlies fans hopped on the Raptors’ bandwagon during last year’s title run just to support Gasol, who never did quite reach the Finals with the Grizzlies despite several valiant attempts.
More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports