Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)
With only 13 regular season games remaining, the Raptors chances of edging the gap over the Wizards for 3rd place in the East are becoming slimmer. Currently, Toronto is exactly two games behind Washington, with the Raptors possessing the tie-breaker should they finish the season with the same record. Looking at both of their schedules ahead, it looks like both teams have equally difficult matchups, in what could prove to be pivotal games that decide each team's fate for the playoffs.
The Raptors would be better served if they finished the season as the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. This, of course, is assuming that Cleveland remains in the 1st seed, but this too may be contested as the Celtics are gaining serious ground, being only 1.5 games behind the Cavs. Couple that with the Celtics schedule being fairly easy for the remainder of the season, having Boston finish as the 1st seed may actually be beneficial for the Raptors, should they stay where they are. As you can see, it's a bit of a clusterfuck in terms of where the Raptors should finish the season, and how other teams finish may make or break the Raptors' chances to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Thus, examining all the likely possibilities would be beneficial to attain a better understanding as what would work best for the Raptors. Knowing that it is at least possible for the Raptors to finish as the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, I'll try to break down the different likely scenarios that the Raptors may face should this happen; in terms of who they would likely have to face if they want to reach the ECF once again. On the flip side, knowing that it's likely that the Raptors finish where they are as the 4th seed, I will do the same with this in mind. Thus, it serves best to examine what the Raptors are currently faced with in terms of finishing 4th, who they would likely have to face, and who the Raps fans should root for if we are to assume this scenario. Let's get to it.
As much as we don't want to admit it, the Raptors are likely to finish 4th, given the loss of Kyle Lowry for what appears to be the remainder of the regular season. The chances of the Raptors slipping down to the 5th seed are quite slim, as they stand 3 games ahead of the Atlanta Hawks. As of today (Sunday, 3/19), the Hawks are 4 for their last 10, suffering three straight losses in their most recent outings against the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Trail Blazers, respectively, with the last two games being played at home. Looking at their schedule ahead, it seems to be a bit more challenging than the Raptors', with the Wizards, Bucks, Celtics, and a back-to-back stint against the Cavs on the horizon towards the close-out of the season. With this in mind, Raptors fans can be confident that the Hawks will probably remain as the 5th seed, leaving the Raptors finishing as the 4th, in a worst case scenario.
Should this happen, the two teams will face each other in the first round of the playoffs. Raptors fans ought to be encouraged with the team's chances of getting out of the 1st round against Atlanta, assuming Kyle Lowry is able to return from his wrist injury in time. Now, I understand that Atlanta owns the tie-breaker over Toronto, as they took 2/3 games during the course of the regular season. However, bear in mind that their most recent outing was without Lowry, and the Raptors only fell by 6 points, with only PJ Tucker finishing in the plus column, with a +5. With the addition of a healthy and consistent Lowry, as well as the Raptors being energized by another opportunity in the playoffs (I just love those intangibles), I'd be willing to wager on a productive Lowry, despite the recovery and the pessimism regarding last year's playoff performance (call me crazy).
It's what follows the first round that interests me the most. Yes, if the season were to end today, and the Raptors defeat Atlanta, they'd have the extremely difficult task of facing the Cavaliers in the Conference Semi-Finals. The likelihood of the Raptors advancing past Cleveland to participate in another Conference Finals series is... well, let's face it... it's not very likely at all. Cleveland has this incredible not-so-secret weapon known as LeBron James, and the playoffs is when he shines the brightest. Throughout the playoffs last year, James averaged 26.3 points, shooting 52.5% from the field, 9.5 boards, 7.6 assists, at just shy of 40 minutes per game. Adding a player like Kyrie Irving into the mix, it gets a bit more discouraging. Again, in last year's playoff outing, Irving averaged 25.2 points, shooting 47.5% from the field, 44% from deep, 4.7 assists, and just about 37 minutes per game (stats via basketball-reference.com). Given that the refs tend to be a bit more lenient with the whistle during the playoffs, and how (we would like to believe) the NBA would love to see another Cleveland/Golden State NBA Finals, I think it's safe to say that the Raptors would once again fall to the Cavs, ending their hopes to reach two consecutive Conference Finals. But this isn't necessarily etched in stone. Hear me out.
As mentioned earlier, the Celtics are biting the heels of the Cavs, sitting just 1.5 games behind 1st place. With the ostensibly easy end-of-season schedule Boston has, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Celtics could attain that 1st seed, leaving Cleveland out of the Raptors way in the second round of the playoffs, should they get that far. If this were to happen, the Celtics would then face the Bucks to start the playoffs, assuming Milwaukee stays put. When looking at it this way, Raptors fans should swallow their pride a bit and cheer for the Celtics in hopes of gaining ground over Cleveland. Call me crazy, but I'd much rather face one of Boston, Milwaukee, Miami, or Detroit (the latter three teams could finish as the 8th seed) in the second round of the playoffs than Cleveland. Against any of those teams, I like the Raptors' chances. Plus, assuming Boston is able to get out of the first round of the playoffs (yet to be seen under coach Brad Stevens, mind you), the opportunity to see a Boston/Toronto 7-game Playoff series would be incredible. Just watch their most recent outing and tell me tensions wouldn't be at an all time high. Go ahead. Watch it again. Spoiler Alert: Raptors won... and it was awesome.
Thus, if we are to concede the notion that the Raptors probably won't gain ground against Washington, and are left as the 4th seed, begrudgingly hoping for Boston to attain that 1st seed may be what's best for the Raptors in the long-run. If it means a better chance of having another go at Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, you'd have to take that. Granted, it's unlikely that the Raptors would be able to top Cleveland, much like they were able to do last year, but that's ok! Advancing that far in two straight playoff appearances is light-years ahead of what we previously thought Toronto would be capable of doing; even in our wildest of dreams. So, given this possibility, umm... go Boston??
Ugh.... yeah, go Boston!
Now, if you just can't stomach the thought of doing anything remotely close to rooting for Boston, I feel ya. This doesn't necessarily have to be the case, if we consider the possibility of the Raptors finishing as the 3rd seed. This would, then, avoid two problems - 1) rooting for Boston, at all and 2) having to face Cleveland in round two of the playoffs - assuming Boston also stays put at the 2nd seed. Both sound good to me! Unfortunately, the Raptors finishing 3rd is a bit more unlikely in comparison to the probability of them finishing 4th. Note that they are currently two games behind Washington for the 3rd seed, which is a lot of ground to cover in just 13 games. Yet, with the Raptors owning the tie-breaker over Washington, it's not too crazy to see this happening. As mentioned, Washington's schedule is just as difficult as Toronto's (all things considered), but they do have to get by Boston, Cleveland, the Clippers, and Golden State. You ask - "how is that just as easy as Toronto's schedule?!" Well, this is the time in which team's that have already clinched tend to rest their players; I'm looking at you, Golden State. If the Raptors hope to finish as the third seed, they can't afford for the Warriors to give Washington any favors by resting their stars. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has already begun this process, in light of the Kevin Durant injury, by resting players in a recent game against the Spurs for the second consecutive time against the team. If Kerr is willing to rest his players against a rival Western Conference team like San Antonio, I'm sure he wouldn't think twice about doing so against a team like Washington. He has nothing to lose.
But for funzies, let's consider the possibility that the Raptors are able to regain that 3rd seed, while everything else remains the same (that last part is important). If this were to happen, history would repeat itself and the Raptors would face Indiana in Round 1. Assuming the Raptors can once again edge out a series against Indiana, their path to the ECF is still bright. Again, if we assume everything remained the same with the exception of Toronto finishing 3rd and Washington finishing 4th, and if we also assume the Raptors are able to take down Indiana in Round 1 of the playoffs, that would leave the Raptors with a Round 2 matchup of either Miami (again) or... yep.... Boston.
Those that cannot stomach the aspect of routing for the Celtics may prefer this scenario, as it serves the Raptors better for the Celtics to finish as the 2nd seed. Otherwise, the Raptors would be faced with the troubling task of (probably) facing Cleveland in Round 2 of the playoffs, which I already covered in the previous scenario. Again, I'd much rather see the Raptors face a Dwyane Wade-less Heat in Round 2 of the playoffs, or the Celtics so we can have a more-than-just-entertaining 7-game series than to have to face Cleveland that early. The longer the Raptors can go without facing the Cavs in the playoffs, the better. Yet, the more likely scenario of the Raptors facing Boston in Round 2 of the playoffs would be the much more desirable options.
So, in the end, I guess it all depends on whether or not you can come to grips with the idea of cheering for the Celtics. If you can't, then you better hope the Raptors can gain some ground over Washington and take that 3rd spot back. If you can stomach cheering for Boston, then you must do so with the hope that the Raptors remain as the 4th seed. Given the schedule ahead, and given the Raptors will probably be without Kyle Lowry for the remainder of the season, we may have to swallow the notion of the Raptors finishing as the 4th seed. Which... yeah.... that means go Celtics.
I know, I know. I don't like it, either.
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