Celtics, Raptors to face each other after opposite starts to season

Jim Fenton

They were the surprise winners of the NBA's Atlantic Division title last season, becoming the fifth different team to finish first in eight years.

The Toronto Raptors, who won 47 games, earned their first division championship by six games over the New Jersey Nets. Less than a quarter of the way into the 2007-08 season, though, the Raptors' bid to defend that title looks like it is going be difficult.

With the Boston Celtics (15-2) off to a sensational start, the second-place Raptors (10-9) are already six games behind.

Toronto gets a chance to cut into that deficit tonight when they face the Celtics at the TD Banknorth Garden (7:35, TV: Comcast SportsNet; radio: WEEI-850 AM).

The Celtics, who own the NBA's best winning percentage, are threatening to run away with the division, which they have won only once (2004-05) in the last 15 years.

Boston finished 23 games behind the Raptors last season, but the summertime overhaul that brought in Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, James Posey and Eddie House has changed things in a hurry.

This marks only the fifth time in franchise history the Celtics have won 15 of their first 17 games. The Celtics made it to the NBA championship series on the other four occasions, winning the title twice. The 1957-58 team stretched its record to 19-2 and finished 49-23, losing to the St. Louis Hawks in the title round.

The 1963-64 Celtics were 20-2 on the way to a 59-21 season and defeated the San Francisco Warriors in the finals.

The 1984-85 team raced out to a 19-2 start, went 63-19 and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the title round.

The 1985-86 Celtics went 17-2, finished 67-15 and defeated the Houston Rockets for the franchise's last championship.

The Celtics are also chasing history as far as having the best home start since the team began playing in 1946. 

With a 9-0 mark at the Garden, the Celtics are four wins away from breaking the record established by the 1984-85 team that was 12-0 and finished 35-6 at Boston Garden.

A win over the Raptors tonight would give Boston a 10-0 start at home for only the sixth time.

The 1985-86 Celtics, who went 40-1 at the old Garden, won their opening nine home games, lost to the Portland Trail Blazers, 121-103, on Dec. 6, 1985, then ripped off 31 straight victories on the parquet floor. That team also went 10-0 at home in the postseason.

While the Celtics have been nearly unstoppable in the opening five weeks this season, the rest of the Atlantic Division has been mediocre.

The ailing Raptors are just 6-5 at home and have split their last 10 games overall. They have been shorthanded in recent days with Chris Bosh missing four straight games due to a strained groin and Andrea Bargnani being sidelined for two games with a left knee ailment. Point guard T.J. Ford returned Wednesday night after playing only two of the last seven games due to a stinger in his left arm.

The New Jersey Nets (9-10) have also had some injury problems while the New York Knicks (6-11) and Philadelphia 76ers (5-13) area already on a path for the lottery in May.

The last time the Celtics won the Atlantic Division, they were aided by a late-season trade that brought Antoine Walker back to Boston on Feb. 24, 2005.

The Celtics were 27-28 when they obtained Walker from the Atlanta Hawks. They won 11 of the next 12 games, with a seven-game winning streak included in that stretch, and finished first with a 45-37 record, two games ahead of the 76ers.

Consecutive games

After hosting the Raptors, the Celtics will board a plane for Chicago to take on the Bulls Saturday night. It will mark the fifth time Boston will have played back-to-back games this season, and they have yet to lose in that situation … Beginning next Wednesday, the Celtics play five of their next six games at the Garden … The Celtics are 5-0 against division opponents after winning just seven games against teams from the Atlantic Division a year ago.

The Enterprise