NEW YORK (AP) — For the last two years, they were the final two steps in what had become LeBron James’ annual climb to the NBA Finals.
Now that he’s gone, maybe the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are done being stepping stones.
They are among the teams capable of winning the Eastern Conference, which no longer has its longtime ruler and has plenty of candidates ready to replace him.
“Top of the East is awfully good,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s a different East than it was the last couple of years, that’s one thing, and so I would say that we’ll see. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
It played out the same way the last two years. The Raptors went out weakly in the second round, swept by James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, before a banged-up Boston team put up as good a fight as it could in the conference finals before falling.
The Raptors made wholesale changes even after winning 59 games last season, firing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and promoting Nick Nurse, and trading DeMar DeRozan in the deal to get Kawhi Leonard. They are likely to be the No. 2 seed behind Milwaukee, and Nurse said they’re ready for the postseason.
Leonard looks healthy, Pascal Siakam has blossomed into a Most Improved Player award candidate, and the midseason acquisition of Marc Gasol has fortified the interior. Toronto can play big or small and can match up with any style of play or opponent — even if James was still around.
“When I say I feel like we’re ready to play, that has nothing to do with who we’re going to be playing,” Nurse said, “either first round, second