When I first looked at the Eastern Conference playoff picture during the All-Star break, there was a sense of confidence that the Toronto Raptors, if they were able to hold on to the third seed, would be in good shape to win a playoff series, regardless of their opponent.
Now? That’s far from a sure thing.
Thanks to a frantic trade deadline and the ensuing free fall of several Eastern Conference teams not in Chicago, Cleveland, or Atlanta, this is how the standings look today:
Atlanta is just days away from clinching the conference and Chicago has a narrow opportunity to chase down Cleveland for the two spot. After that, the Raptors and Washington Wizards are wedged in to the fourth and fifth seeds, with two games on either side.
Milwaukee has dropped down to the bottom rungs, but remain the sixth seed. After that, five teams will have a realistic chance of making it into the dance. There was hope last time I wrote this that the Raptors could see those teams. Barring a miracle, they will not.
So instead of the larger net we cast last time, let’s take a more focused look at the two teams they are most likely to face.
Raptors vs. record: 3-0
The Raptors completed a season sweep of the Wizards on February 11, the last game before the All-Star break. After the layoff, both teams have taken a dive, as their fanbases have blamed coaching for the struggles.
Randy Wittman’s career record is hovering around .390, which doesn't inspire confidence. The strong foursome of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and Nene should arguably be fighting among the East’s elite, not hanging on to a fifth spot. Wittman, though, much like Casey, has made questionable rotation decisions, playing Drew Gooden over Gortat late in games and giving heavy minutes to Ramon Sessions. Gortat has also been asked to play in the post, where he isn't comfortable and has been ineffective. Wittman isn't taking full advantage of his talent - sound familiar?
The Wizards have also struggled mightily late in games, as outlined in this Bullets Forever piece. Part of that is the fact that they’re a surprisingly old team, the fourth-oldest in the NBA at an average age of 28.8.
This is part of why the Raptors are 3-0 against them. Toronto has won the fourth quarter or OT in each of the two close games against Washington (the third was a 19 point win on November 7). However, this was indicative of the Raptors early in the season - a much stronger team late in games than they were to begin them (remember #WeTheFourth?). That trend hasn't been as noticeable since February 11, when this happened.
It’s silly to compare teams across seasons, but it’s also worth noting that the Wizards were an unexpected force in last year’s playoffs, and their core already has a first round upset under their belts after last year’s win over Chicago.
So, will the Raptors continue their domination of the Wizards in the post-season? Washington fans don’t want to see this matchup, but Toronto shouldn't be at all confident considering how badly their defence has deteriorated since the All-Star break. The Wizards starters are explosive and Paul Pierce is a known Raptors-killer who is primed as a postseason impact player. There will be those who invite a Wizards-Raptors first round, but there are also plenty of reasons to be nervous.
Raptors vs. record 2-1
It’s hard to imagine Chicago falling back from third (unless they realize it's in their best interest and tank). If they do, though, the Raptors will have their shot at the Milwaukee Bucks. In my All-Star break piece, I highlighted Brandon Knight as a huge impact player in a potential series against the Raptors. Well, wouldn't you know it, Knight got traded to Phoenix and the Bucks acquired Michael Carter-Williams from Philadelphia two hours after the article got posted. The Bucks have been near-awful ever since.
Though Carter-Williams has struggled with shooting and turnovers, Milwaukee’s drop hasn't been entirely due to the trade. The Bucks bench, once the second-best in the NBA, has been decimated by trades, injuries, and all-around poor play. Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo have missed time in the second half of the season, leaving more on the shoulders of Jerryd Bayless. The Bucks’ starters aren't world-beaters either, but Khris Middleton continues to emerge as a solid two-way shooting guard to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Against the Raptors, it’s worth mentioning again that Jason Kidd has built a defensive stalwart with this team. They may not provide much threat on the other end, but the Raptors had issues with Milwaukee’s length before the Knight trade. Carter-Williams gives them even more size, which could confound a Toronto team that favours isolating its undersized guards.
Ultimately, Toronto would welcome a series with Milwaukee. It’s a great team to rediscover your defence against (or at least develop some false confidence going into round two) and offensively, the Raptors are deep and talented enough to ultimately overcome the Bucks.
Will that series happen? It’s up to how the Raptors want to play over the last two weeks of the regular season. Otherwise, it’ll be the Wizards, and you roll the dice that your struggles will be less than theirs.
Who would you like to see the Raptors play in the first round?