After an off-season of fireworks highlighted by the addition of superstar Kawhi Leonard and the firing of long-time coach Dwane Casey, the 2018-19 season promises to be exciting for the Toronto Raptors. While it will be a campaign to follow closely, here are the eight games that Raptors fan cannot miss.
1) Every Single Game vs. the Celtics
Friday October 19th 8;00 PM vs. Boston
Friday November 16th 7:00 PM @ Boston
Wednesday January 16th 8:00 PM @ Boston
Tuesday February 26th 8:00 PM vs. Boston
Yes, it’s a cheat, but these four games are important! The Boston Celtics finished second in the Eastern Conference last season, trailing Toronto by only four games. But the Celtics were down key players for long stretches of the season like Gordon Hayward, who missed the entire season, and Kyrie Irving, who was out for 20 games including the final 14. The 2018-2019 campaign is shaping up to be very different for the Celtics as they are healthy once again and their brilliant young core is one season more mature. They promise to be a force to be reckoned with in the East.
For their part, few will take the Raptors lightly. They enter the season as the consensus second favourite to win the East — behind the Celts. The addition of two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard has re-energized a squad that limped out of the playoffs after a dominant regular season. If they are to repeat last year’s achievement, the Raptors will probably need to win the season series against Boston. That means that every game will have a playoff-like intensity, making them flat out fun to watch. And with everyone expecting these two teams to fight it out for the east’s berth in the NBA Finals, these four match-ups will be a strong indicator of Toronto’s chances of besting Boston come spring.
2) Dwane Casey’s Return
Wednesday November 14th 7:30 PM vs. Detroit
Dwane Casey, the most successful coach in Toronto Raptors history, makes his return to the Scotiabank Arena November 14th. Last season’s Coach of the Year won 320 games as the Raps head coach, with an impressive .573 winning percentage over his seven-year stint in the Big Smoke. After leading the team to their best season in franchise history with 59 wins and the first seed in the Eastern Conference, Casey was dumped following Toronto’s post-season disappearing act. Nevertheless Casey was always a fan favourite because of his charisma, his plain talk and his unmatched work ethic.
Expect fans to give Casey a very warm welcome when the Pistons come to town in mid-November. It has standing O written all over it. And while it is unlikely to be a nail-biter on the scoreboard because of the talent disparity between the two teams, expect Casey’s new charges to reach back for a little something extra for their new head man as he faces his former squad. It will be special to witness the reception the best coach in franchise history receives, making this another must-see game.
3) The Reigning Champions in the House
Wednesday December 29th 8:00 PM vs. Golden State
The Raptors will match up against the defending champion Golden State Warriors in late December in a huge test for the locals. The NBA’s elite team comes to town at an opportune time as it will be Toronto’s 23rd game of the campaign. That means that the early season adjustments, inevitable with a new head coach in charge, should be out of the way and the team hitting on all cylinders. Rookie boss Nick Nurse will know what his best lineup is by then, which should translate into a high-octane contest. And the Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins will most likely still be out as a result of the Achilles he tore last season.
A Raps win will definitely make a statement as the entire NBA universe will be watching the featured televised game. You should too.
4) Kawhi Returns to San Antonio
Thursday January 3rd 8:00 PM @ San Antonio
New Raps superstar Kawhi Leonard will start the New Year with a bang with an early January return to San Antonio — the only home he has known during his NBA career up until this summer’s mega-trade. His reception will be interesting to say the least given last season’s shenanigans culminating in his trade request. The Spurs scored two outstanding ex-Raptors in the deal: perennial all-star DeMar DeRozan and promising Jakob Poeltl. They should make San Antonio a contender in the West once again. It will be bizarre to see Nurse’s squad matched up against DeMar — a truly iconic Raptor — making this game an intriguing contest both on and off the court. Hopefully, Toronto’s travelling fan contingent will support the Klaw and his teammates in this hostile environment. It’s definitely a game to circle on the calendar.
5) DeMar DeRozan’s Return to Toronto
Friday February 22nd 7:00 PM vs. San Antonio
DeRozan returns to the Scotiabank Arena for the first time as a Spur on February 22nd. It will be odd seeing DD in grey, white and black. DeMar was one of the best Raptors ever, leading the team in eleven different categories all-time including games played, minutes and points. He was a massive part of the Raptors 2014-15 turnaround season that saw them become Eastern Conference contenders year in and year out. Expect a raucous sellout crowd and an extended standing ovation from the classy home fans, who will no doubt be demonstrative in showing their respect and appreciation for DeRozan.
And don’t count out the possibility of him dropping 50-points on the Raps, as promised. In addition to being an ultimate competitor, he’s clearly harbouring a grudge against the Raptors’ front office and will be keen to make a point.
6) The Rockets Back in the Six
Tuesday March 5th 8:00 PM vs. Houston
The Rockets come to Toronto in early March and it has the makings of a phenomenal game. The Raptors won both games against Houston last year, including a nail-biting 108-105 victory last March. It was a statement win for last season’s Raps against the front-seeded Rockets. It was also the closest thing to a playoff atmosphere in the ACC during the regular season.
Houston will be very strong once again, led by their dynamic duo of James Harden and a healthy Chris Paul. Adding temperamental Carmelo Anthony will supply more offensive firepower, if he accepts his role. Leonard will display his formidable defensive chops covering reigning MVP Harden. Hopefully history repeats itself as Kawhi got the best of Houston a couple of seasons ago when, with 30-seconds left in the game, he drained a contested three-pointer to put San Antonio up by two points, then had a massive block on Harden at the other end. It was an incredible display. This game should be extremely entertaining, well worth freeing up your schedule on Tuesday March 5th.
7) The Return of the King to the North
Thursday March 14th 8:00 PM vs. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers make their much-anticipated yearly visit to Toronto March 14th. The Raptors took care of business last year against the Lakers, winning both games by an average of 10.5 points. However, this year’s match-up is very different because of LeBron of course, who has been the single obstacle separating the Raptors from the NBA Finals the past three-years.
This game comes during the final stretch of the regular season when the Lakers are expected to be in the thick of a gruelling Western Conference playoff race. Meanwhile, the Raptors could find themselves toe-to-toe with the Celtics for top spot in the East, amplifying the outcome of this game for both sides. The Scotiabank Arena will be sold out and rocking for what could be another LeBron show, like so many times in the past. Much like versus Houston, it will be another test of Kawhi’s defensive prowess. Be sure to start your weekend early and tune into this one.
8) Home and Away vs. OKC Thunder
Wednesday March 20th 9:30 PM at Oklahoma City
Friday March 22nd 7:30 PM vs. Oklahoma City
Toronto plays a home and away mini-series against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the end of March — games number 72 and 73 of their schedule and their last real test before the playoffs. The Raptors nine games following the pair against OKC are against Eastern Conference teams either on the playoff bubble or in the lottery mix. The Thunder, spearheaded by Russell Westbrook and Paul George, are not an easy match-up by any means. And it stands to reason that their locker room minus Melo will be more cohesive, which should translate on the court. Plus the addition of Dennis Schroder provides Westbrook the opportunity to play off the ball more. Other than Golden State and the Celtics, OKC might have the best end-of-game lineup in the league, making it tough to close out games against them. This will probably force Nurse to play a shorter bench, perhaps previewing what will follow in the post-season.