With only a few games remaining on the schedule, it's unlikely that the Atlanta Hawks will catch the Toronto Raptors in the standings. Toronto has a healthy five-game lead and quite a few things would have to break wrong for them to lose the long-standing hold they've had on the Eastern Conference's second playoff seed. For one thing, the Hawks have just seven games left, two less than the Raptors. For another, two of those seven come against the very team they'd love to catch.
Toronto takes on Atlanta at the ACC tonight and will meet them again down in Georgia on April 7th. A simple split of those contests should be enough to secure the Raptors a first round match-up with either Indiana or Detroit, who are currently jockeying between 7th and 8th in the standings. While this may seem relatively inconsequential, should the unspeakable happen and all those breaks go wrong, Toronto would be looking at a much tougher first round series with one of Miami, Boston or Charlotte.
Let's get to the three things to watch for on the night.
A well-worn criticism of Raptors teams in the past is that they often played up to tougher competition and played down to weaker opponents, frequently blowing games to the dregs of the league and putting the best of the best through their paces. Toronto seems to have shed (or at least addressed) that fault this season, for the most part. Toronto sports a 33-12 record against the improved Eastern Conference and a stellar 28-9 home mark; they've also gone 11-2 against their terrible division, which is exactly what you need to do when you play in such a stinking terrible division. This team has taken care of business all season long.
With that said, this is a league where the atrocity that is the Los Angeles Lakers beat a team likely to set to at least equal the all-time wins mark. So despite the fact that Toronto has beaten Atlanta twice already this season and posted a +9.0 mark against them (their best differential against any Eastern Conference playoff team) doesn't mean they should take the Hawks lightly; Atlanta is 9-1 in their last ten games and has the best defense in the entire NBA since we rang in the new year. Toronto needs to come correct and drop the hammer. This leads to our second point.
Toronto got smoked by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night. Run off their own home floor. I'm not one for hyperbole, but knowing what a chupacabra Russell Westbrook is, you have to believe that OKC circled this one on their calendar after Toronto bested them in Oklahoma back in November. Even though Kyle Lowry is banged up and DeMarre Carroll might not come back, the Raptors need to find a way to regain their swagger heading into the playoffs. It won't be easy; in their next six, they have these Hawks twice, the Spurs, Grizzlies, Pacers and Hornets. It's not hard to see this team struggling before they get to wind down against the Knicks, Sixers and Nets. A couple hard fought wins could be just what the doctor ordered before this team heads to the post-season.
How's Kyle Lowry Doing?
That's it. Just a simple, innocent question.
Where to Watch: TSN, 7:30pm EST