Raptors jockeying for position in tight East play-in race
TORONTO – Play-in for what?
When Masai Ujiri coined the phrase at the end of the Raptors’ ill-fated season in Tampa, he had good reason to feel that way.
With Kyle Lowry likely on his way out, the team was between eras. Scottie Barnes was still a freshman at Florida State. Fred VanVleet hadn’t blossomed into an all-star. Pascal Siakam was still a shell of his former (and future) self. The organization was in flux.
On top of their uncertain future, they were playing home games in an empty arena more than 2,000 kilometres from Toronto. Once things started to slip away, the front office decided that the best way forward was to take a strategic step back. Instead of overextending themselves for what probably would’ve been a short-lived postseason run, they used the final few weeks as a means of improving their odds in the draft lottery.
Obviously, things have changed enough over the past couple years to elicit the opposite decision in a similar situation. Now, they have a young star to nurture, and getting Barnes – in addition to their other young players – experience in high-leverage games has long-term value. Crucially, they’re playing home games in their own building again, in front of paying customers, and revenue is undoubtedly a factor as well.
The deadline-day acquisition of Jakob Poeltl made their intentions clear, if they weren’t already. The Raptors are determined to squeeze into the playoffs, which means that – unlike the “Tampa tank” – they’ll almost certainly have to embrace the play-in tournament.
“If we play [well] we’ll win and if we win we’ll climb the standings, that’s just how it goes this time of year,” VanVleet said. “We got our work cut out for us but I like where we’ve been at. We’ve been pretty focused the last couple weeks, gotta keep it up.”
The goal over these final nine games is to climb the standings as much as possible, and with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Eastern Conference play-in race is very tight. That these are average teams who have been hovering around the .500 mark all year explains why nobody has separated themselves from the pack.
Brooklyn has predictably fallen off since moving Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant at the trade deadline and is barely hanging onto sixth. Miami, currently occupying the seventh seed, has the worst point differential of the East’s top-10 clubs. Eighth-place Atlanta has been within one game of .500 for 27 straight contests. Chicago is right behind Toronto for ninth and lost to Philadelphia by 25 points at home on Wednesday.
Then there are the 35-38 Raptors, who haven’t been at .500 since they were 13-13 on December 9 and have squandered five opportunities to even their record over that span.
Just when it seemed like they were starting to build some late-season momentum, coming off three straight wins and a hard-fought loss to the NBA’s best team in Milwaukee, they dropped Wednesday’s contest to the short-handed Pacers. Granted, Toronto was without Barnes, Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa, and for a team that lacks depth at the best of times, the absence of three rotation players was glaring. Still, at home – where they had won seven games in a row – and against an Indiana team missing its best player in all-star guard Tyrese Haliburton, the 118-114 loss felt like another missed opportunity in a season that’s been full of them.
While it’s not mathematically impossible, climbing to sixth and avoiding the play-in altogether is highly unlikely. Going into Thursday’s contest against Cleveland, the Nets are holding onto a slim lead on Miami for the final guaranteed playoff spot and have a four and a half game cushion on Toronto, as well as the tiebreaker. The Heat will also be hard to catch. They’re four and a half games up on Toronto as well, and even though the Raptors can take the season series, Miami would hold the tiebreaker as a likely division winner. Barring a late-season collapse from the Heat, who’ve won seven of the last 10 games and have a manageable schedule the rest of the way, seventh seems out of reach.
Eighth place should be the realistic target. Finishing eighth would give them a couple shots at the playoffs – only having to win one of two play-in games, as opposed to finishing ninth or 10th and needing to win twice in order to advance. Most importantly, that second game – if they were unable to beat the seventh-place team (likely Miami or Brooklyn) on the road – would come at home, where they’re 23-14.
The Hawks also lost on Wednesday, courtesy of Karl-Anthony Towns’ go-ahead free throws, and maintain a one-game lead on Toronto for the eight seed. They also own the tiebreaker, having won the season series 2-1, so the Raptors would need to make up a couple games in order to pass them.
Both teams have difficult schedules to close out the season. While six of Atlanta’s nine games come at home, they’ll face four of the league’s top-six teams. Their remaining opponents have a .554 winning percentage, compared to .511 for Toronto’s final nine opponents.
After hosting the last-place Pistons on Friday, the Raptors have a couple of important home games against teams in or around the play-in mix – Washington on Sunday and Miami next Tuesday. Then they head out on a five-game road trip, where they’ll visit Philadelphia and play consecutive contests in Boston before coming home for their regular season finale against Milwaukee. Four of their final six games come against the East’s top-three teams, with three of them coming on the road.
Ultimately, it could come down to how much Boston and Milwaukee have to play for in the final week of the campaign. Currently, the Bucks have a two and a half game lead on the Celtics for the conference’s top seed, while the Celts are trying to hold off the surging 76ers, who have pulled within a half game. Toronto will be hoping that both clubs have seeding wrapped up by then and can afford to manage the workload of their stars in preparation for the playoffs.
All the while, the Raptors also have to be wary of the 10th-place Bulls, who have won five of seven contests and are just a half-game back with a game in hand (though Toronto would own the tiebreaker). They’ve gained some separation from Indiana (one and a half games out of 10th) and Washington (two and a half games out), and have the friendliest schedule of the teams in this race – seven of their 10 remaining games come against teams below the .500 mark.
Of course, even if the Raptors were able to leapfrog Atlanta to secure a more advantageous seed and then survive the play-in tournament, the grand prize would be a date with Milwaukee, Boston or Philadelphia, any of whom would be considered strong favourites in a best-of-seven playoff series.
This isn’t how they imagined spending the last few weeks of the campaign, having to scrap and claw their way into the playoffs just to be first-round fodder for a championship contender. This time, though, they believe the prospect of extending their season by any means necessary is better than the alternative.
“Playoff basketball experience is really valuable,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “I would also say we feel that if we get in a playoff series we are not afraid of anybody and I think that we are a hard out. I think that we’ll put some defensive issues in front of people and things like that. I always say we need playoff experience, but once you get in it, obviously the goal is to figure out a way to get out of the series and keep advancing. So, there's a lot there looking down the road, but you gotta keep your eye on what's in front of you first.”
First, they have to get in.