Raptors Back Themselves Into Atlantic Division Title

The Toronto Raptors may have captured their second Atlantic Division title, but the club hasn't been firing on all cylinders of late.

"Sweet and sour" was how Kyle Lowry described the Toronto Raptors capturing their second Atlantic Division title in franchise history.

The sweet obviously refers to the division title, the sour, a 108 to 100 loss to the New York Knicks last night in a game where Toronto looked at times indifferent, and at others, like a pretty poor basketball team.  It took a Brooklyn Nets loss to the Atlanta Hawks for the Raptors to clinch the Atlantic Division, not exactly a convincing statement by the Dinos as the playoffs draw near.

And that's the big worry for Raptors' fans this morning in all likelihood.

Last night's loss wasn't just one bad game, but defensively, it represented the extension of a series of poor showings of late, many masked by having an offence that compensated for said defensive decline, resulting in wins in seven of the team's last nine games.

But as The National Post's Eric Koreen noted this morning, it could be argued that Toronto hasn't played a "great" game since their March 14 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Injuries have certainly played a part in this, most notably I'd argue, Amir Johnson's lingering woes.  Last night it was New York's power 4 combo of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire (!!!) who shredded the Raps and it was hard for me not to watch the affair and wonder if a 100 per cent healthy Amir Johnson wouldn't have shut a lot of this down. (Especially concerning Stoudemire.)  RaptorsRepublic's Blake Murphy recently went deep into this concept, examining Toronto's defensive woes of late.

The key takeaway?

The (Raptors') defence rating...has dropped from a top-eight mark overall to a bottom-five mark over the last nine games.

Think about that one for a second.

It's probably why someone like Frank Isola of the New York Daily News watches last night's game and tweets:

Isola_medium

We know how capable Toronto is of being a top defensive club, but it's just not the case right now, something the club needs to try and fix in the final three games.  Against clubs like the Magic and Bucks, leaky D can be overcome by solid offense but it's hard to imagine that being the case against a team like the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the post-season.

Which as of this morning, is the team Toronto is slated to face.

A lot can change over the final three games but the takeaway from last night's games is that the Nets still sit in fifth, but the Raptors drop to fourth with last night's loss, meaning the Bulls leap into third (they came back to beat Detroit.)

And the Wizards move back into sixth place as they defeated the Magic while the Bobcats lost to the Celtics.

The Heat beat up on the Pacers so they put a little distance between themselves and Indiana at the top of the Eastern Conference, and the Hawks' win over the Nets last night keeps Atlanta in the final playoff spot, and pushes the New York Knicks, despite their win, to the brink of elimination.

The good news for Toronto is that two of their final three opponents have very little to play for.  Detroit and Milwaukee have been out of the playoff race since December (not quite but...) and the Pistons, who need to finish with a bottom-eight record to keep their draft pick, seem to be safe in that regard (three games up on the Cavs.)  Even the Knicks, the third opponent in the Toronto's final set of games, may have zilch to play for considering they could be out of the playoff mix as well, and with their lottery pick headed to Denver (the curse of Masai!), they may shut down someone like Melo who's obviously playing through some injury issues.

That's great in terms of seeding as lesser competition again should mean extra wins for Toronto, but in addition, here's hoping that any such victories come in convincing fashion thanks to improved performances at both ends of the court.

On D that obviously means more Amir but also tighter rotations from the whole team.

And on offensive there's still work to be done as well.  Jonas Valanciunas has been fairly dominant of late, but his teammates (and arguably his coach) sometimes forget he's on the court.  Patrick Patterson hasn't been as effective as he was pre-injury, and players like Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez have been great one game, not so great or invisible, the next.

Suffice to say, I'm glad the playoffs aren't starting tomorrow.

Let's see if over the final three games, the Toronto Raptors can regroup a bit, and get back to playing the type of basketball that made Charles Barkley recently call the Dinos "a dangerous team."

Right now, the only thing dangerous about the Raptors, is the possibility that their global ambassador might sneak up on you...

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