TORONTO – With all-star weekend in the rear-view mirror and 27 games remaining before the playoffs, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet was asked if seeding is a top priority for his team going into the stretch run.
Toronto enters the unofficial second half of the season sitting second in the Eastern Conference, 1.5 games ahead of Boston – with Miami, Philadelphia and Indiana also on its tail – and 6.5 games behind Milwaukee for first place.
The Bucks are in the midst of a historic campaign. With a record of 46-8 at the break, they’re on pace for 69 wins, which would tie them for third most all-time. They feature the league’s best player and reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and haven’t lost consecutive games since the Raptors beat them in four straight to knock them out of the playoffs last May.
They’ve been on cruise control, running away with the East crown while those other five teams look up and jockey for position behind them. But not so fast. The Raptors aren’t ready to concede the top spot in the conference.
“Naturally, just how we're built, we want to be the 1 seed,” said VanVleet, who had just returned to Toronto after spending all-star weekend in Turks and Caicos. “We're not in the position we are in now if we don't want to be the No. 1 seed. So, yeah, we'll go for it and we’ll see where we land. I think it would take Milwaukee to take a serious fall, which you never know, might happen, hopefully. But we're going for the No. 1 seed and we'll see where we fall.”
Catching Milwaukee won’t be easy, as VanVleet notes, and it isn’t especially likely either, but you can understand why the defending champs would be ambitious. The Raptors come out of the break as the NBA’s hottest team, having won 15 of their last 16 games. At 40-15, they only need seven more wins to exceed their pre-season over-under, so they’ve already defied the odds and exceeded expectations. They’re a confident, prideful bunch so it’s not a surprise to hear that they’re shooting for the moon.
What would it take to get there and is it even worth shooting for?
The Raptors have only faced the Bucks once this season – a loss in Milwaukee way back in early November – meaning they’ll see each other three more times over the next six weeks, including next Tuesday night in Toronto. They would almost certainly need to sweep those meetings to even have a chance. Winning all three would just about cut Milwaukee’s current cushion atop the conference in half, while also giving Toronto the tiebreaker. The Raps would still have to make up 3.5 games, though.
Milwaukee’s remaining schedule is among the toughest in the NBA, for what it’s worth. The Bucks have 16 more games against teams with winning records – tops in the East and tied for the most in the league. Ten of those contests will come versus the five teams below them in the East standings, a group they’re just 3-3 against so far this season. The cumulative winning percentage of their remaining opponents is .526 – third highest in the conference, according to NBA.com’s recent schedule analysis.
Problem is, the Raptors’ schedule isn’t exactly a cakewalk either. The winning percentage of their remaining opponents is .514, tied with Boston – the team that’s right on their heals – for sixth highest in the East. In about a month they’ll face a daunting stretch, with nine of 10 games coming against teams above .500.
Even after their franchise record 15-game winning streak – taking advantage of a friendly stretch of the schedule entering all-star break – they only made up three games on Milwaukee.
All that is to say, the Raptors wouldn’t just need to be near perfect the rest of the way, they would also need some help from the Bucks, who haven’t looked vulnerable very often this year.
Complicating matters further is whether it even makes sense for Toronto to go all out in pursuit of first place.
Seeding is important, to be sure. Finishing as the first or second seed would allow them to avoid the East’s vaunted top-6 in the opening round, which could be a significant advantage given how steep the drop-off is after that group. You would much rather take your chances with the Nets (25-28, seventh place), who just lost Kyrie Irving to season-ending shoulder surgery, or the Magic (24-31, eighth) than the Pacers (32-23, sixth), a tough and well-coached team that recently got Victor Oladipo back, or the 76ers (34-21, fifth), who have chemistry issues but are talented enough to flip the script in a seven-game series.
Beyond that, finishing first and securing home-court advantage through the Conference Finals has to be tempting, although they took down the Bucks without it last spring.
Still, Nick Nurse and the Raptors have other priorities they’ll be juggling over these final two months of the season.
“I think we’re striving to stay up in the top two or three [seeds] but I don’t want anything to be so all consuming,” Nurse said. “The seeding is very important but it’s not critically important, end-of-the-world stuff. You can’t let it psychologically affect you that way. We’re gonna play the best we can but who knows what’s going to happen in these next [27 games] as far as availability, schedule, players, who other teams will have to play, who they’ll be missing. All those kinds of things factor into it and to get your heart and soul wrapped up into being [top two], I don’t think puts you in the right mindset.”
Instead, they’ll continue to experiment with different lineups and schemes. They’ll aim to polish up some of their defensive coverages and add more to their offensive set package, as Nurse put it. They also plan to expand Pascal Siakam’s workload even further, in the hopes of preparing him for the pressure he’ll face in his first postseason as the team’s No. 1 option.
However, more than anything else, they’ll prioritize health. There’s only so much they can control, of course. The injury bug can bite at anytime, and they’ve been plagued by it all season long. So, if they can minimize the risk by managing the minutes of their veteran players or even giving guys a night off late in the season, they’ll certainly consider it.
They’re already playing it safe with Marc Gasol, who has missed the last eight games with a lingering hamstring ailment that also cost him 12 contests earlier in the campaign. It seemed as though Gasol was set to return shortly after the break but, on Thursday, Nurse indicated he could be out a while longer. It didn’t sound like he had suffered a setback, necessarily, but given Gasol’s age (he just turned 35), importance to the team, and the amount of basketball he’s played over the last 16 months, they want to make sure he’s fully healthy and rested ahead of the playoffs.
The Raptors have had all of their top-7 players available in only 17 of 55 games this season. As good as they’ve been, despite their many injuries, they know they’ll need to be at or close to full strength to reach their potential as a team, especially without the luxury of having an elite player like Kawhi Leonard to bail them out.
“I think just playing good, feeling good and getting healthy is probably slightly more important than where we end up seeding-wise,” VanVleet said.
“Health is the first thing,” said Siakam. “We want to be able to be healthy. We want everyone back and to make sure that we have all our guys and we can build together as a team.”
These next eight weeks will be a balancing act for Nurse and his team. They’ve been playing to win first and foremost, and make no mistake, that’s not going to change. If that means hanging onto second place in the process, or even chasing Milwaukee for first, as unlikely as that may seem, then that’s great. But it will all be for naught if they’re not physically and mentally prepared for the post-season grind. Fortunately, they know that as well as anybody.
“It's a marathon, man,” VanVleet said. “There’s going to be ups and downs, we just can't get too high and too low and [we’ve got to] take it one game at a time. I'm going to use all the clichés because they're borne out of a little bit of truth and I think that we've got to live like that a little bit here. But hopefully we put together another streak and give you guys something else to write about.”