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The Raptors and the First Round of the Playoffs: Early Evaluation of the Opposition

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It’s the All-Star break and the Toronto Raptors are among the East’s elite. What have we learned so far about our possible first round opponents?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ask most Raptors fans last summer what the dream for this season was, and the answer was a playoff series win. Now at the All-Star break, we’re just three months from finding out whether dreams really do come true.

Never one for Disney endings, I want to look at what it’ll take for the Raptors to make that goal a reality. First, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference standings:

east-standings-3-feb-13

Atlanta, 6.5 games up, has essentially locked up the top seed. Toronto, Chicago, Washington, and Cleveland are the next four seeds separated by four games. All four have been up and down, but are firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. These five teams are the Eastern Conference’s best. After that, Milwaukee is close, but the drop-off in talent is steep.

As a realist Raptors fan, I’m all but assured that Toronto’s current roster would lose to Chicago or Cleveland in a seven-game series. As for Washington, the Raptors have played them 3-0 this season, but the Wizards played through Nene and Marcin Gortat far more in last year’s playoffs than they do now. If they go that way again, in the slower pace of the playoffs, Toronto’s lack of frontcourt depth could sink the ship. I have hopes Toronto could win against Washington, but I'm certainly not convinced.

So, if the Raptors want to meet their goal, the ideal is to hold on to a top-three seed and avoid Washington, Cleveland or Chicago in the first round. That too raises an interesting conundrum, though - of those bottom three teams, who would we rather play?

There are five teams I think are most likely to take the six through eight seeds. The Raptors have had varying success against them this season, for many different reasons.

Milwaukee 
Bucks

Raptors vs. record: 2-1

Jason Kidd has done a remarkable job coaching this young Milwaukee team, propelling Brandon Knight to near-All Star status and developing Giannis Antetokounmpo into a two-way force. Kidd also burned Dwane Casey last year, playing Joe Johnson isolation plays ad nauseum, daring the Raptors to double and rotate. That plan, as you know, worked.

Kidd doesn't have the luxury of a Joe Johnson with this team, and that shows (though 6’7" Khris Middleton is doing his best impression). In their first meeting, the Raptors put up 124 points, just two points off their season-high. After that, though, Milwaukee’s length has affected Toronto in two subsequent meetings. The Bucks have dug in defensively, forcing shooting nights of 40 percent and 32.2 percent. That defence and the pedigree of their young coach is worrisome for the Raptors.

Miami Heat

Raptors vs. record: 0-1

Toronto has played just one game against the Miami Heat this season, a 107-102 loss all the way back in November. Miami has changed substantially since then, mostly thanks to NBA 2K legend Hassan Whiteside.

This kid could be a problem. Having to protect the rim could create real problems for undersized Raptors forwards. Also, Toronto has to ensure that the Miami Heat three-point shooters remain in cryogenic sleep. Guys like Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers, who made threes consistently during Miami’s championship runs, are shooting just 26.3 percent and 28.3 percent from deep, respectively. So, keep their shooters cold, keep the big guys off the boards, and the Raptors should have enough firepower to beat the new look Heat. Also, for Air Canada Centre reasons:

Charlotte Hornets

Raptors vs. record: 0-1

With long-term injuries to Kemba Walker, Bismack Boyombo, and just 9.2 points per game from touted acquisition Lance Stephenson, the Bobcats are trending downward. However, if they’re able to hold on to a playoff spot with Walker at the helm, this team has proved itself a Raptor-killer. Gerald Henderson presented himself as a matchup problem as well, scoring 31 in the Bobcats 103-95 win on January 8. The two teams meet twice more this season, which will teach us plenty about whether Charlotte is a real threat in a long playoff series.

Brooklyn Nets

Raptors vs. record: 2-1

Brooklyn is one game out of the picture right now, but have figured out an atypical starting lineup that (kind of) works with Jarrett Jack and Mason Plumlee starting ahead of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. If that sounds weird, it is. The Nets have been even an ongoing experiment under coach Lionel Hollins. One week they’re on the verge of a fire sale, the next they’re getting season-defining wins over the Spurs, Raptors, and Clippers.

Sure, Brooklyn always plays Toronto tough, but the rag tag group that the Nets are rolling out right are so erratic, it’s hard to see them getting consistent efforts in a seven game series.

Detroit Pistons

Raptors vs. record: 2-1

After waiving Josh Smith, Detroit is a new team - going 17-9 since the move on December 22. So far this season, the Raptors are 1-0 against the Pistons with Smith, 1-1 without. Those latter two have seen the teams separated by just a point overall and have been highlighted by outstanding Pistons point guard play. In the Pistons win on January 12, Brandon Jennings dropped 34. Jennings is now out for the year with an ACL injury, but D.J. Augustin filled in admirably in the Raptors win on January 25, putting in 35. If this first round matchup happens, there will then be obvious pressure on Kyle Lowry to play on both ends - something he hasn't been able to do against the Pistons yet this year.

When it comes to the NBA playoffs, nothing is automatic. The Raptors have flaws that can be taken advantage of, and will need to play well defensively in any situation if they’re going to reach the second round for the first time in 14 years.

Who would you like to see the Raptors play in the first round?