TORONTO – It’s clear that there’s mutual respect between the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics – and there has been since well before they met in what’s turning into an all-time great playoff series – but so is something else: these two teams don’t like each other very much.
It came to a head following Wednesday night’s double-overtime thriller, a season-saving 125-122 win for the Raptors to force a deciding Game 7. After an exhausting 58 minutes of intense, emotionally charged basketball, tempers were running high.
With Toronto inbounding the ball, a half-second away from evening the series up at three games apiece, Celtics guard Marcus Smart threw his body into the stationary Marc Gasol, embellishing contact and trying to sell a call, as he’s been known to do. It worked earlier in the night, but this time the officials weren’t buying it. Game over.
Taking issue with the flop – and there’s been plenty of them, on both sides, in this series – Gasol exchanged a few words with Smart. Then Fred VanVleet intervened and the teams were separated. But the fireworks didn’t end there.
Seemingly upset over a play late in regulation – where Jayson Tatum threw the ball in the direction of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who was standing a bit too close to the corner of the three-point line, and committed a crucial turnover – Jaylen Brown took aim at Toronto’s coaching staff in his post-game media conference.
“There’s a lot of emotions,” Brown said after the loss. “It’s an intense series, so things like that tend to happen. We’ve got to be ready to fight. That’s a respectable organization. I expect them to act accordingly. Things seemed to get out of hand at time, from the coaching staff, etc. Let’s keep it under control. Let’s keep playing basketball. Let’s be ready to fight.”
Imagine how awkward it must have been at the Gran Destino breakfast buffet on Thursday morning.
But on the eve of Game 7, both clubs downplayed the animosity, chalking these tense moments up to the heat of battle – two really good teams playing hard and doing whatever it takes to win. That’s why it’s been such a competitive series.
A lot of people waited a long time to see this matchup play out under the bright lights of the postseason, including the two teams themselves. Considering how good both franchises have been for the better part of the past decade, it’s hard to believe it took them this long to cross paths.
Over the past six seasons, no Eastern Conference teams have appeared in more playoff games than the Raptors and the Celtics. They mirror each other in many ways: their tough and hard-nosed styles of play, their innovative coaches, their rising stars, their crafty – and, at times, irritating – vets. Even their fan bases don’t get along.
For years, Raptors-Celtics seemed to be a rivalry in the making. They just needed something to ignite that spark. Well, nothing fuels that fire quite like a seven-game series.
“I think that we’re close in proximity, we’re in the same division, both teams have been in the playoffs a lot of years in a row,” said Nurse. “It just seems like the regular-season matchups against these guys seem to be big moments, and we always talk about how big a game they are. And then you find yourself in a tough series like this. It feels like a rivalry already, even though this is the first time we’ve met. I think a lot of factors have gone into that.”
With a couple of notable exceptions, this series has lived up to the hype. If you look past the lopsided results of Games 1 and 5, the other four contests have been determined by seven points or fewer. One came down to the final half-second. Another required an extra 10 minutes to decide.
Coming in, most expected this to go the distance, and while there were certainly moments where that appeared unlikely, a Game 7 seems fitting.
“It’s [the] two [seed] versus [the] three [seed], two teams in the same division, they’ve got some young studs that are coming up, we’ve got a team that has been through some battles,” said Kyle Lowry, who is averaging a team-high 21.5 points in the series and has been a catalyst in all three of Toronto’s wins.
“Well, I would have thought that at the start of the series,” Nurse said. “Even before [the series], you would have thought if Boston and Toronto got on a collision course it was going to be a hell of a series. We almost didn’t make it one because of our play a couple of times, and obviously we won a couple of close ones, but we got a good series. We got a Game 7. Let’s see what happens.”
Whatever happens on Friday, the Raptors have been pushed to their limit by this Celtics team, tested like never before.
A year ago, the road to their historic championship was paved with adversity. They had to exorcize some demons after dropping the opener to Orlando. They had to overcome a 2-0 series deficit in order to get past the NBA’s MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his top-seeded Bucks. Then, with the help of some injury luck, they had to hold off the Steph Curry-led Warriors.
In hindsight, though, their toughest challenge came in the second round, when they needed seven games – and four iconic bounces – to outlast the Philadelphia 76ers.
Now, even if they can knock off Boston and advance to face a very good Miami Heat club in the East Finals, there’s a good chance they look back at Round 2 as the stiffest test to their title defence.
The Raptors are really good, the Celtics are really good, and when both teams are at their best this thing is as evenly matched as it gets. Fortunately, there’s another game left to be played, and if Wednesday night is any indication, it could be one for the ages.
“When both teams bring it at a level where you know one can't necessarily impose their will on another, that's where the games become special,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said on Thursday.
“I think that that's why I have nothing but respect for Toronto, I've said that from the get-go. We know that there'll be good tomorrow and we know that we need to be our best tomorrow. So, whatever happened yesterday, whatever happened in the past doesn't have any real meaning tomorrow. And so, we look forward to it. These are great opportunities.”