Tuesday was fun. T-shirts draped over the Garden seats. A warm and loud welcome. An opponent you’d beaten seven of nine times last year.
Friday night, however, will be a far greater test for the Celtics. The Raptors are far more ready to compete at a high level than Philadelphia, and this one will be in Toronto, where the Celts were waxed by 20 and 18 points last season.
It would be fair to say the C’s are better now with Kyrie Irving, who missed the latter loss, and Gordon Hayward in tow, but the Raptors look like they’ve improved, too, with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (acquired for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl).
Toronto was the East’s top seed and finished four games ahead of the Celtics last year, and many have warned that the Bostonians might not be quite the lock to make it to The Finals if Leonard is healthier and more engaged than he was last season in San Antonio. The Raptors’ 116-104 win over Cleveland in which Leonard went for 27 points did nothing to dispel that notion.
“It’s going to be special,” said Irving, who struggled with 2-of-14 shooting and seven points against the 76ers. “It’s going to be special. It’s great to go through challenges like this at the beginning of the season — on the road against Toronto.
“Jurassic Park’s going to be crazy. I mean, I’ve been able to play there a few times. But now that they have a veteran group, a veteran starting five with Danny Green, Kawhi and obviously Serge (Ibaka) and now the young guy, (Pascal) Siakam, and OG Anunoby coming off the bench, I mean, those guys are lethal when they get up and down. So we’ll be prepared for a track meet, as well as managing the game very well from my end, as well as Terry (Rozier)’s.”
The Celtics had a couple of days to generally rest their legs since Tuesday, but now they head into a span of three games in four nights. With an 8 p.m. start and the Customs process, they’ll get into New York in the wee hours to face the Knicks Saturday night. An energetic Magic squad will visit the Garden on Monday.
As for whether this is a difficult stretch, Rozier said, “I feel like every week is. I mean, we’re still upset about last year. Everybody’s saying we’re the best team in the East and all that stuff, but we’ve still got to prove it when we step between the lines, so it’s good to start off like this.
“Toronto’s always been a tough team for us, especially going into their place. That’s why it’s a good test for us.”
Rozier didn’t want to get too deeply into whether the Raptors have improved with Leonard.
“I’m a big fan of DeRozan,” he said, “but, you know, Kawhi is Kawhi. He’s a great player.”
No doubt, the Raps are probably a bit tired of hearing how the Celts are destined to win the conference. Sure, they saw their very good season go down the tubes in a 4-0 second-round playoff loss to Cleveland, and management was so upset about it that it let go Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and took a chance on Leonard, who can opt out of his contract and be a free agent next summer.
This will be Toronto’s chance to offer rebuttal to the prognosticators.
But it’ll also be an opportunity for the Celtics to state their case in a difficult environment before a national television audience.
Larry Bird used to say how much he loved going into a hostile arena and quieting the home crowd.
Told this, Irving said, “Yeah, there’s nothing like dominating on the road. But I think at this point I’m just happy to be playing away or home. I’m just grateful.”