Beasts of the East: Toronto and Boston Rise as Eastern Conference Contenders
If you were to have asked me at the start of the season who the Cavs biggest rival in the East was going to be, I would have said with 100% certainty the Miami Heat. A healthy Wade and Bosh, a surging Whiteside, a premier combo guard and a rookie who could immediately contribute off the bench. Here we are however only two weeks out of the All-Star break, and Miami is in the mix with all the other Eastern Conference pretenders. Rumors of Chris Bosh’s blood clots returning possibly forcing him to retire, mixed with a case of too many cooks in the kitchen on offense, and a play from another team having problems “fitting in” with the team after being relegated to the third best player on the team… stop me if you’ve heard this one before; the Miami Heat have severely underperformed expectations this year. So who then, would be pushing the Cavs in the East?
The logical conclusion would be Chicago; they’ve been rivals with Cleveland dating all the way back to the Jordan Era, LeBron has eliminated Chicago from the playoffs 5 years in a row now, and so far this season Cleveland has not claimed a win over its central division rival. Yet these are empty wins for Chicago, both coming at very situational times, and Chicago itself is in shambles; currently not even in a position to get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. NBA analyst for Bleacher Report, Greg Anthony, even went as far to make the bold prediction that due to Jimmy Butler’s injuries the Bulls will not even make it into this year’s playoff mix.
Yet through all the chaos and mediocrity in the Eastern Conference, two surprise contenders has risen to the challenge. The Toronto Raptors are playing phenomenal basketball and not only are vastly improved from the previous year, while the Boston Celtics have gone from sneaking into the 7th seed last year to being a single piece away from being true contenders. First, let’s look at the Raptors.
There is no way around it, the Raptors are good. Their improvements stemmed from avoiding big name free agents and instead choosing to build around their existing core in the offseason. Signing Bismack Biyombo, offering an extension to Jonas Valanciunas and the addition of Veteran Luis Scola all provided the Raptors with one of the strongest front courts in the NBA. In addition they signed a poor man’s LeBron in DeMarre Carroll and extended Terrence Ross’s contract giving a strong backup at the three spot. Paired with one of the most potent backcourts in the East, the Raptors came into this year ready to make the jump from rebuilding to contending.
Contend they did, the Raptors have not underwhelmed this season. While a majority of the Eastern Conference sits between eight and ten games behind Cleveland, Toronto sits a mere three games behind. Until a game against the Nuggets on February 2nd, the Raptors held a franchise record 11 game winning streak. Kyle Lowry currently sits at the number two position in all time assists for the Raptors. These aren’t the same Raptors that got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round last year.
The Raptors haven’t had this meteoric quietly either. People, both inside and outside the association, have taken notice. The Raptors starting back court both have made it into the All Star game, as well as being named co-Eastern Conference Player(s) of the month. Their coach Dwane Casey was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for January. Bleacher Report in their weekly power rankings seated the Raptors above the Cavs, stating at least at the moment, the Raptors were at least marginally better than Cleveland. ESPN also places Toronto at 3 while Cleveland sits at 4 and SI has similar results. What makes these results even more impressive however is that the Raptors have been able to produce these results without their All-Star small forward, DeMarre Carroll.
The Celtics are something different. They have somehow found a way to be contenders while simultaneously still rebuilding. It’s rare to see a team with so many role-players and no superstars preform so well (to be fair, I said the same thing about Atlanta last year, so maybe it’s more common than I like to believe) yet here stands Boston, a completely different team than they were five years ago, and arguably only a few steps away from being just as good as the KG Big Three era.