The NBA season is suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and while the league hopes it will eventually be able to resume and conclude the 2019-20 campaign, that's far from a foregone conclusion. This week, we're asking some big questions that would be left unanswered if play doesn't resume.
The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have lorded over the Atlantic Division for the better part of the last decade. If you include this year's suspended season, they've finished one-two in the division in five of the past six years, with last year's Celtics accounting for the lone exception. At least one of them has reached the Eastern Conference finals every year since 2015.
On balance, the Raptors have been the better team during that time. Since 2013, they've won the division every year but one - when they finished second, two games behind the Celtics. But there have been seasons in which the Celtics have been better (or at least advanced further), or where the gap has been negligibly slim. This season fell into the latter category. The teams have been in lockstep for most of this season, ranking third and fifth in overall record, second and fourth in defensive efficiency, and fourth and fifth in net rating.
They've mirrored each other in myriad ways; both have been buoyed by spectacular team defense, significant leaps from their young star forwards (Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum), and stabilizing play from their stalwart point guards (Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker). At the time the season was suspended, Toronto sat three games ahead of Boston in the standings, but had played an easier schedule and owned a slightly worse net rating when filtering out garbage time. The Celtics led the season series 2-1, but not much can be gleaned from those games since the Raptors were decimated by injuries in two of them and the other was the second game of the year.
It's galling that we've never gotten to see which team would get the best of the other in a playoff series. They've had plenty of spirited regular-season bouts, and the matchup has long shown potential to grow into a legitimate rivalry. But rivalries are consummated in the postseason, and in the postseason, the two teams have been like ships passing in the night. Every time it looks like they might collide, some cosmic force seems to divert their paths.
This year looked like our best chance to finally see them square off in a best of seven. They've occupied the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the East for most of the season, wrestling over the title of "biggest threat to Milwaukee." Barring the 76ers remaining in sixth place and finally figuring their stuff out, the Raptors and Celtics were well on track for a second-round meeting, with the winner likely getting to take their swing at the Bucks. However the rest of the season would've played out, both teams were unqualified success stories.
The Raptors responded to the offseason departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (plus the extended injury absences of virtually everyone in their rotation) by producing an identical record through 64 games (46-18) as they had at the same point last year - when, you may recall, they went on to win the championship.
On top of Siakam's ascension to iso-scoring, pull-up-shooting No. 1 option, they were carried by breakouts from Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby; the emergence of another diamond in the rough in undrafted rookie Terence Davis; a career-best offensive season from Serge Ibaka; enduring defensive brilliance from Marc Gasol; and the outrageous ingenuity of Coach of the Year front-runner Nick Nurse, with his bottomless bag of wackadoo defensive schemes. Meanwhile, Lowry continued to defy Father Time, producing one of his best offensive seasons while remaining a diabolical defensive disruptor and somehow ranking third in the NBA in minutes per game as a soon-to-be 34-year-old.
The Celtics, despite losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, rebounded from a joyless 2018-19 season in which on- and off-court disjointedness seemed to stoke each other in an endless negative feedback loop.
Walker proved a better basketball and personality fit than Irving, Tatum exploded after a frustrating sophomore season, and Jaylen Brown grew from a 3-and-D role player into a legitimate offensive weapon with a bankable off-the-dribble game. Another year removed from his traumatic leg injury, Gordon Hayward bounced back from a down year, looking much more like the physical inside-out scoring and playmaking threat Boston signed in 2017. Daniel Theis mitigated Boston's frontcourt losses by being an absolute rock in the middle. Marcus Smart routinely pestered opposing stars at all five positions, as Marcus Smart does.
Boston wasn't quite as snakebitten as Toronto but still had to weather its own health crises, with Walker, Brown, Smart, and Hayward all missing double-digit games. The success both teams accrued in the face of adversity was consistently overlaid with the reminder, equal parts hopeful and rueful, that they weren't even operating at full health. The notion of each team eventually becoming whole, and then giving the other its best shot for up to seven games in the spring, was one of the season's most exciting possibilities.
Tactical and aesthetic curiosities abounded, on top of practical questions like "Who would win?" and "Could either of them take down the Bucks?" Certain indicators suggested the Raptors had the edge, like the fact that the Celtics lacked a natural defender for Siakam. Others favored the Celtics - like the fact that between Walker, Tatum, Brown, and Hayward, they had more self-creators than the Raptors did, which tends to be pretty important in the playoffs.
The parallel rises of Tatum and Siakam, within the context of the Toronto-Boston Atlantic Division duopoly, led to inevitable comparisons between the two, and a playoff series would go a long way toward establishing where they stand in relation to each other. A chess match between Nurse and Brad Stevens would be all kinds of fun.
But now it looks like we may once again be deprived of a chance to finally see which of these would-be rivals has the upper hand. That would be one of the season's most frustrating unanswered questions.