Well, well, well, look at that.
It's nearly playoff time!
Yep, not words I've been able to type in relation to the Toronto Raptors in over half a decade but here we are.
With a day off yesterday and today before the Dinos play their final five games of the 2013-14 season, I thought it would be good to check in with some of the folks who've been covering the Raptors all season, to get their quick take on the upcoming playoff situation, and Toronto's outlook therein.
To that end I've gathered some of the finest pens in the land to give their thoughts: Joseph Casciaro of The Score.com and Raptorblog, Eric Koreen of the National Post, Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun, and Tim Chisholm of Three in the Key and Raptors Republic.
1) RaptorsHQ: In what position do you think the Raptors will finish the season and who will their first-round playoff opponent be?
Joseph Casciaro: I was starting to think that the fourth seed was where the Raptors would land, but finding a way to go 3-0 while sitting Lowry and Amir was huge, and given the five games remaining on the schedule, that No. 3 spot certainly now looks attainable again. By the time Wednesday rolls around, this team should be healthier and well rested, and with an easier final two weeks than the Bulls have, Toronto should be able to lock it up. The Bobcats still have a chance to steal the No. 6 seed from the Wizards, and their matchup this week will go a long way in deciding that top-six spot, but I still expect a Raps/Wiizards first round meeting.
Eric Koreen: Call me an optimist - seriously, do it; nobody ever has - but I think the Raptors will finish third. They will play Washington in the first round.
Ryan Wolstat: Because we're talking about the Raptors and things seldom go right for them, I'm quite tempted to say they'll drop to fourth and take on Brooklyn. However, things seem to be changing this season and Chicago has a tougher schedule to close, so I'll go with 3rd and a meeting with the winner of Wednesday's game between Charlotte and Washington.
Tim Chisholm: I think that they finish in third. The Raptors have a fairly light schedule the rest of the way and right now, as a result of leading the Conference, they have the edge against Chicago in a tie. Chicago still has to face Minnesota and Charlotte, both of whom could give the Bulls problems, whereas the Raptors have only bottom-feeders the rest of the way. I also think that Washington holds onto the sixth seed and that the two teams will go against each other in a battle of teams with very little Playoff experience between the two of them. Of course this could end any number of ways but I think everything holds for the Raptors as they stand right now.
2) RHQ: Which opponent(s) are ideal/best case in terms of the team advancing?
Casciaro: If you put any stock in regular season meetings, you would have to say Washington. Nobody wants to play the Bulls or Nets, the Bobcats took three of three from the Raptors, their defence is scary and Al Jefferson is playing out of his mind right now, while the Raptors took three of four from the Wizards, with the only loss of the season series coming in double-overtime. I don't think Washington will be an easy out by any means, but just the easiest of those four.
Koreen: Any first-round matchup is going to be more or less a coin flip. You'd like to avoid the Bulls or Nets, just because I'm not sure the Raptors would get the fair end of the whistle over the course of seven (or fewer) games. The Bulls, I think, would be the ultimate nightmare, as Jimmy Butler can chase DeMar DeRozan around screens for days and days and days.
That leaves Washington (over Charlotte) as the best matchup. However, they have John Wall to torment a suddenly so-so defence, as well a pair of veteran big men to push around Jonas Valanciunas.
Wolstat: Washington would probably be the most ideal opponent, since I've seen the Raptors throttle them in D.C. (though the Wizards also beat the Raptors, playing much better, another time). Besides matching up well (especially with the way Jonas is playing now), it's not exactly a tough barn to play away games in. I'm sure the crowds will be better because the team has been out of the post-season for so long, but it's Atlanta-like whenever I visit during the regular season. In any case, far less intimidating than Brooklyn or Chicago.
Charlotte wouldn't be too bad either, even though they've owned the Raptors in Charlotte. Toronto would have home court and a big talent edge (Though Al Jefferson would be a problem).
Chisholm: Washington and Charlotte obviously represent the best chances for the Raptors because they possess the least Playoff experience and will be coming into the postseason with the same nerves and likelihood to make mistakes as the Raptors will have. Plus, Toronto possesses several matchup advantages against both of those teams (although going against John Wall would cause any teams problems), especially if Jonas Valanciunas can maintain his reinvigorated level of play. On the flip side, Chicago and Brooklyn would represent very likely first-round exits for the Raptors. Both possess gobs of playoff experience and both are built for postseason play. The Raptors will make a lot of mistakes in this postseason, which is completely understandable and to be expected, but if they are forced to go up against Chicago or Brooklyn they'd be going up against teams that will know how to exploit each and every of those mistakes.
3) RHQ: Obviously some of this depends on matchups but how far realistically can you see this team going in the postseason?
Casciaro: If the Raptors lock down the No. 3 seed and the Pacers continue to sputter as the No. 2, the Eastern Conference Final is a legitimate ceiling for this team, which is pretty remarkable. Having said that, they can also just as easily lose a first round series to one of the Nets, Wizards or Bobcats. They can advance to the East Final, but I predict they'll win a round and lose a hard fought second round series.
Koreen: Lucky is not the right word, but they will be life and death to win a round. If they can get Indiana in the second round, they have a puncher's chance, although I still expect the Pacers to find themselves once the post-season starts. However, they are dealing with some serious issues right now. If it's Miami - well, some pale beat writers can get a head start on a summer tan, which isn't nothing.
Wolstat: Eastern Conference Final if Washington/Charlotte and struggling Indiana are the first two opponents. First round exit if it's Brooklyn. Second-round knockout if Miami is there.
Chisholm: The Raptors can absolutely get to the second round if they go against Washington or Charlotte, and to be honest at this point they should probably be disappointed if they failed to do so against either of those teams in round one. Like I said above, though, if they have to go against Chicago or Brooklyn in round one they will almost assuredly fall in a seven-game series. The experience disparity would simply be too much to overcome.
4) RHQ: What are the one or two things above all else that you feel will dictate the team's post-season success?
Casciaro: Seeding and health. It sounds simple, but it's the truth. This team has proven to be a legitimately good one over the last four months since 'The Trade,' and I don't anticipate them falling apart come late April. If they're healthy and play one of the Wizards or Bobcats before playing the Pacers, again, we could be talking about the deepest playoff run in franchise history. But if they draw one of the Nets or Bulls in the first round or the Heat in a potential second round matchup, it may not matter how well they play. That's not to say I can't see them beating Brooklyn or Chicago in the first round, it's just I don't think anyone would expect it. As for the Heat, I think taking them to five games would be a success.
Koreen: - Health, particularly that of Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson, who will be battling long-standing ailments when the playoffs start. They are the team's two most important defensive players. Without them locked in and moving reasonably well, they are going to have to win games in the 100s, which isn't their style.
- The combination of screens set by the big men and patience of DeMar DeRozan. So much of the offence runs through intricate plays designed to free up DeRozan in the mid-range. If more grabbing and clutching is permitted, those plays will be tougher to execute. It will be on Johnson, Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson to be precise with their screens, and DeRozan to know when his shot is there and when it's not.
Wolstat: Staying in third spot. Keeping Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson on the floor. How well DeMar DeRozan adapts to life in the post-season.
Chisholm: DeMar DeRozan has to stop taking horrible midrange shots purely with the intention of trying to draw fouls. The refs are going to call games looser in the postseason and with each possession counting for so much in the playoffs, they cannot afford the number of possessions that DeRozan throws away playing this way. The club needs him to be more efficient and he has it in him he just has to play with more discipline.
The other big x-factor is Valanciunas. If the team can keep him involved in the offence (and he can stay out of foul trouble) then he gives the team the desperately-needed alternative to their perimeter-heavy attack that can often succumb to taking too many long jumpers in a row. Plus, when Valanciunas is plugged into the offence he works harder on defence and is more active on the boards. However, if the players freeze him out, which they have a tendency to do for long stretches, it could significantly impede the Raptors' offensive versatility.