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Are the Raptors and Celtics rivals yet?

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A modest investigation into the ongoing situation atop the Atlantic Division.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last night the Raptors beat the Celtics after a stirring comeback in the second half. At one point Toronto was down 16 points (in the second quarter); later they faced a nine point deficit in the fourth. There were stretches that looked mighty grim. Until, that is, a couple of Raptors — mainly DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, with an assist from Kyle Lowry — decided to put the team on their metaphorical backs and save the day.

Before the game, the word “rivalry” was tossed around — mostly by reporters — in relation to the nascent competitive grudge between Boston and Toronto. Both teams are in the Atlantic division (which admittedly means nothing these days) and both have been on similar ascendant timelines. The Raptors turnaround began in late 2013, while the Celtics started their climb into relevance the following season. Both teams have respected and long(ish) tenured coaches — Brad Stevens is in his fourth year in Boston, Dwane Casey working on his sixth in Toronto. Both, most importantly, have a solid identity and aspirations for greater success. (And, it goes without saying, but: both have little chance of beating LeBron James and Cavaliers in any significant way as currently constructed.)

So is Raptors vs. Celtics a real rivalry? Is it still too early to discuss it as such? Where do things stand between these two teams? And if things aren’t yet in fully heated rivalry mode, what needs to happen to get us all there? Let’s investigate.

(Note: I’m just going to stick with the past three seasons — when both the Raps and Celts have been in the playoffs with a lot of the same key players. I know we could go down an entire rabbit hole here of Kevin Garnett barking at Jose Calderon, but why do that to ourselves?)

History

Over the last two full seasons, plus the first third of this one, the Raptors hold an impressive 7-3 advantage over the Celtics. Obviously, talking about the Celtics but limiting yourselves to the past three years is something of a fool’s errand; they have a rich history of ups and downs. Nevertheless!

It’s worth noting here that the average margin of victory between the latest iterations of the Raptors and Celtics is a fairly tight 7.6. The largest margin of victory is 14, a game which the Raptors won back in March of 2016. And there’s been one OT game, which the Raptors lost by one point in April of 2015 (a fairly dark time, if you recall).

Since Boston acquired Al Horford, one of the better players in the league, the Raptors have gone 2-0 and found new ways to stop, slow or disrupt whatever it was the Celts were trying to do. In the previous contest, the Raps went small, stuck Patrick Patterson on Horford and pulled away let in the game. Last night, Toronto stayed big and watched as Valanciunas played the game of his life, grabbing (or tipping) every rebound he could, and stuffing both Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green in the dying moments. (DeRozan also hit some absolutely back-breaking shots and just refused to lose.)

All of this has to stick in the craw of the (try-hard) Celtics and their fans. Let’s assume this helps light a rivalry fire.

What’s Missing: A regular season back-and-forth is nice and all, but it is also ultimately meaningless. What Raptors/Celtics needs is a hard-fought playoff series to make it official.

Quotes

From Boston’s Jae Crowder we have this gem:

“Toronto is not a team we're worried about. I think Cleveland is the top team. That's what it comes down to."

A stinging dismissal, but one lost now to the sands of time given the Raptors run to the Eastern Conference Final to actually play Cleveland, and the Celtics inability to get out of the first round (for the second straight year; been there, guys.). Raptors fans do not like to hear talk like this though, a fact that is well-known by now.

On the other side we have a golden quote from the Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas:

"They [the Celtics] are racing for the second place, we are racing for first."

I was in the room when Jonas said this, and it was sort of shocking to hear him throw this kind of shade at Boston out of nowhere. Valanciunas is usually pretty stolid (re: uncommunicative) when the cameras are on him, but woof, what a zinger. I’m sure the Boston faithful will take these kinds of comments politely.

What’s Missing: We need a top player — any two of Lowry, DeRozan, Thomas or Horford — to go off on the opposing team in some fashion. Think of the fireworks!

Moments

This is where things start to get a little thin. The two things that come to mind both involve DeRozan, but neither really sets the world aflame.

If you recall back in November 2014, a Raptors-Celtics contest basically ended when Lowry stole the ball, drove it down the court and made the perfect dish to a trailing DeRozan for the hammer dunk. Let’s enjoy:

Next up comes from last night, as the game started to slip away from the Raptors. DeRozan got called for a frustration foul, then got a technical, and then decided he’d had enough. DeMar went 12-for-20 in the second half, finished with 41 points and a career-high 13 rebounds and took it almost as a personal insult to lose not only three games in a row, but a game to these Celtics. (Or maybe I’m projecting, I don’t know.)

“It sucks to lose,” said DeRozan in regards to, uh, getting fired up. “You’re gonna lose in this league, but you don’t want to make it something consistent.” Amen to that.

Are there some equally inspiring Celtics plays that got their players and fans riled up? I suppose but who has the time?

What’s Missing: It seems unlikely we’ll see a fight break out in any of these games — most of the players involved are “nice” guys and the league definitely doesn’t want it to happen — but maybe if the Celtics show up the Raps in one of the next two games this season we’ll get somewhere. (Cue raucous laughter)

Potential

Unfortunately, with the absence of any playoff showdowns, a heated Celtics-Raptors rivalry isn’t quite a thing just yet. Head coach Dwane Casey mentioned that his team didn’t like the Celtics, but he was quick to softpedal it as a purely competitive rivalry — e.g. they’re in the same division, they both want to win, etc.

Casey did use the word “bloodbath” to describe the matchup though, which is at least the sort of adjective that is trending in the right direction. The Raptors have been looking for a solid rival for sometime now. All of the teams that could have filled the role in the past (Nets, Wizards, Pacers and Heat) are looking pretty bad these days. (And we obviously want no part of the Bulls.) So, maybe the Celtics are it.

What’s Missing: More games, a meeting in the playoffs, a chance to build more long-term animosity.