The Raptors 18th season kicks off on Wednesday night when they host the Indiana Pacers at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. After a roughly six month hiatus since their last meaningful (and I do use that term very loosely) action, and a pre-season showing that has taken expectations up a level or two, the anticipation for opening night is as high in Raptor Nation as it has been since the VC days. Here's eight other games you need to circle on the calendar for the upcoming season.
Toronto Raptors @ Oklahoma City Thunder - November 6th, 2012
The Raptors will get their first peek at the newly modified Thunder team as they travel to Oklahoma City to close out the NBA's first week back. This game gives the Raptors a chance to test their mettle against one of the league's elite franchises in only their fourth game of the season, along with providing Raps fans a chance to check out two of the more entertaining players on Planet Earth in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Jonas Valanciunas will receive his staunchest NBA test to date against the Thunder's big man tandem of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, and the entire Raptors team will be in tough against a squad that will be looking to quiet any rumblings about them taking a step back from title contention in the wake of James Harden's departure.
Toronto Raptors @ Boston Celtics - November 17th, 2012
In a rare Saturday matinee (12:30pm EST tip-off), the Raptors travel to Boston to re-acquaint themselves with the current undisputed champ of the Atlantic Division. Despite winning a pair of late-season contests against the Celtics during last year's lockout-shortened campaign, the Raptors have been flat-out dominated by the C's in recent memory. Since the creation of their now defunct Big Three in 2007-08, the Celtics have gone 16-4 against the Raptors over that span and haven't lost a game to them in Boston since a 114-112 setback in January of 2008. However the talent discrepancy between the two teams appears to be shrinking and I'd expect Dwayne Casey to frame this game as a proverbial "measuring stick" contest for his young squad. The Kyle Lowry versus Rajon Rondo match-up will be worth tuning in for by itself, and Kevin Garnett is almost guaranteed to be doing KG things, which has included barking at Jose Calderon for the full 94 feet of hardwood not too long ago. This game serves up a lot to like.
Toronto Raptors @ New Orleans Hornets - December 28th, 2012
The Raptors start their post-Christmas schedule with a visit to the Big Easy for a game against the New Orleans Hornets and everyone's favourite singularly eyebrowed star, Anthony Davis. In what should be an entertaining game between two of the up-and-coming units in the league, the main subplot could turn out to be the battle between rookies Terrence Ross and Austin Rivers. It was those two that were widely rumored to be in the running for the Raptors eighth overall pick this past June, and both should be motivated to prove that the Raptors made the right, and wrong choice respectively. Even if their one-on-one battle disappoints, the rest of the rosters feature enough young, dynamic talent to keep your interest locked as your body continues to recover from a turkey OD.
Los Angeles Lakers @ Toronto Raptors - January 20th, 2013
The Lakers are another team that has held court over the Raptors in recent years, compiling a 11-2 record against Toronto since 2005-06. The results aren't all that surprising - the Lakers have been regular title contenders over that timeframe while the Raptors have won 3 total playoff games during the same period - but the manner in which the Lakers have beat up the Raps has been especially painful. Kobe's 81 point game against Toronto immediately jumps to mind... So does his game winner against the Raptors in March of 2010... Or his latest game-ending dagger in the T-Dot last February. Okay, so maybe this rivalry could be better described as Kobe Bryant repeatedly ripping out the hearts of Raptors fans, but the fact remains that games between these two teams have a knack for being exciting, one way or another. Don't expect this season to be the exception; not with Steve Nash returning to Canada for his first game as a Laker and Dwight Howard's lone appearance in the ACC coming this night as well.
Miami Heat @ Toronto Raptors - February 3rd, 2013
Anytime your team squares off with the defending champions, it's a noteworthy game. When that aforementioned team brings the world's best player and one of the more star-laden teams in the history of the league to town, the hype rises another level. When one of those said stars is a player that dashed from the city in free agency two seasons ago, things get turned up yet another notch. Expect the ACC faithful to be as frenzied as they will be all season when the Heat roll into town for the first time as NBA Champs, and for Chris Bosh to get an earful of unmerciful boos rained down on him throughout the night. If there's one thing Raptors fans have perfected over the years, it's holding a grudge. Consider yourself warned Bosh.
New York Knicks @ Toronto Raptors / Toronto Raptors @ New York Knicks - March 22nd and 23rd, 2013
The Knicks and Raptors will clash in a home and home series during the stretch run of the season. In recent years, late season games between the two have held little meaning as the Knicks were headed towards the postseason while the Raptors were poised to enter the lottery process. This season has a chance to buck that trend however. Kool-Aid sippin' Raps supporters have the team pencilled in one of the last playoff spots in the East, while others have the Knicks circled as a team that will take a step backwards this season due to already present injury concerns and an ancient supporting cast surrounding their core of Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler. It's not out of the question that these two contests could have real playoff ramifications, which will only add to the hype that comes with division games (especially ones that come under the lights of Madison Square Garden).
Boston Celtics @ Toronto Raptors - April 17th, 2013
The regular season comes to a close with the Celtics coming to Toronto for their last of four contests in 2012-13. There's no guarantee that this game delivers the goods that their prior encounters will, as the Celtics could very easily be in "rest for the playoffs" mode by the time the final games roll around. However for Raptors fans, it will be an important night no matter what. Depending on how things shake down over the course of the next 82 games, the closing act could serve as a celebration of the team's first playoff appearance since 2008 or the conclusion of another season where you're left saying "Maybe next year". If the latter is the case, I wouldn't be surprised if this is Bryan Colangelo's final act in Toronto as well.
Hit me up on Twitter @fullyhoops if you think there's a game I've missed, or if you just want to talk shop about the Raptors and the NBA.