If you've got playoff butterflies, you're not alone -- the real deal is almost upon us. To talk about the first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, and the Raptors' playoff run as a whole, we brought together a few HQ writers to talk big picture about what to expect over the next two weeks/months.
Around the Table
How far do you see this Raptors team going in the playoffs? What will be key in getting them there?
Russell: I honestly can’t see any reason why this team can’t make the Eastern Conference Finals. They are far from a sure thing to get there and will really need to take everything one round at a time, but no team in the conference outside of the Cavaliers is clearly better than the Raptors in my mind. Even Cleveland seems to be having chemistry issues and might only be an injury or two away from paving a path to the Finals for Toronto. Wouldn’t that be something? The key to the Raptors getting there will be their ability to dictate their own terms in each series. If they can play their brand of slow-paced basketball with plenty of drives, threes, and trips to the charity stripe, while maintaining a respectable defense, there’s no reason to think they can’t beat any Eastern Conference team that doesn’t have LeBron.
Harsh: Conference Semis. I think the Raptors will beat the Pacers comfortably, but the matchup against Miami/Charlotte concerns me a bit more. For the Raptors to make the Semis, they’ll have to play a disciplined offensive game and not get caught out in transition against a Pacers team that can only reliable create offence in that setting. Defensively, as long as the Raptors stay home on the Pacers’ non shooters and stay glued to the few shooters they do have, they should be alright. To go any deeper than that, the Raptors are going to need a healthy DeMarre Carroll reducing Scola’s minutes to as close to zero as possible, and will have to get Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan firing on all cylinders. It’s doable, and they’re good enough to make it to the Conference Finals, I just need to see them win one series before I put my money on them winning two.
Dan: Conference Finals. There are a lot of on-court keys to them getting there, but the most important factor is their competition; Indiana is OK, but not at all scary. And whether you get Miami or Charlotte in the second round, to be honest, they’re not particularly intimidating either. Both of one of those teams are either in the same position as the Raptors are now -- looking to make a deeper dent in the playoffs (Miami) or where they were the past two seasons -- looking for their first taste of playoff success with a revamped roster (Charlotte). Miami has played well recently, but with Bosh out, they’re flawed. That means there’s no experienced Brooklyn-style team lurking, and this Raptors squad is far superior to the one that lost to Washington last year. That’s not to say that these series won’t be hotly contested. Both teams mentioned above (as well as the Pacers) are well coached and talented. But the Raptors, at their best, are just better.
Kevin: Conference semifinals. This is the best iteration of the Toronto Raptors we have ever seen, but I still don’t have confidence in the team making a big push. They just don’t have the experience in big games necessary to earn a deep prediction. Still, I think they have earned their record, and will be able to use their ample skill to beat the Indiana Pacers in the first round and go to six or seven games against another team in the second. The main key for their success is star production. In each of their last two trips to the big show, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were less than inspiring. In particular, Lowry needs to show why he has earned two straight All-Star starter bids. If he shines, the team might surprise me.
John: I would’ve said Conference Finals two weeks ago, but the way Miami is playing right now, I think you can assume they’d be the second round opponent and the Raptors would be hard-pressed to win. The Heat have the playoff experience, the half-court defense to frustrate Lowry and DeRozan, and Joe Johnson is a second-half MVP candidate. I’m so excited to see the Raptors take on that challenge, though. A seven-game series against Miami, win or lose, would be an awesome thing to see. I can’t match my brain with my heart, though, and predict that they win that series. I just don’t see it happening.
In your mind, what’s the barometer for deciding whether it’s a "successful" playoff run for the Raptors?
Russell: Winning 56 games and clearly being the second-best team in the Eastern Conference for the better part of this season, the unbiased answer to this question should be "Eastern Conference Finals or bust." It’s not that simple, however, since we all know that this team needs to win one seven-game series before we can ever safely look beyond the first round. The Raps are good enough to make the ECF and it’ll be a bummer if they fall short, but getting through round one and bowing out after a hard-fought battle with either Miami or Charlotte (good teams in their own right when clicking) in round two would have to be deemed acceptable after how things have gone the last two seasons.
Harsh: It’s going to feel like a disappointing season if they don’t make the ECF. The Raptors are far and away the second best team in the East, and an inability to follow through on their seeding repeatedly will signal problems with the scheme and/or roster constructions. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy with a series win, but losing in 6 or 7 to Charlotte or Miami would leave a bitter taste in my mouth
Dan: They have to win in the first round decisively and at the very least, play a good second round series. If they lose in the second round in six or seven games but the series is a tight one, fine. That’s growth, however minute. But to win in the first, only to get smoked in the second? That still falls under ‘abject failure’ for me.
Kevin: This is probably a sad reflection of how much the last two years of playoff disappointments hurt me, but I honestly think losing in the sixth or seventh game of the second round would be enough. This franchise has been so starved for success that even winning a single series should justify sticking with the roster for another year and hoping the slow, incremental improvements continue.
John: For me, it depends on matchups. The Raptors absolutely have to win against the Pacers, and assuming they get the Heat in the second round, they have to be very competitive and go seven games. If it’s Charlotte, they need to win in semi-dominant fashion (they are simply a better team than the Hornets, who none of us should be that scared of). That said, the Eastern Conference Finals was always going to be the ceiling for this team. Getting there is a success, but saying anything less is abject failure is a bit too simple in my opinion.
The Raptors will see Indiana in the first round. What concerns you most about the opponent? Who wins the series?
Russell: Teams that hang their hats on their defense are typically more successful in the postseason than those that rely more on the offensive side of the ball (don’t we know it?), so Indiana’s third-ranked defense obviously poses a threat. On top of that, Paul George is the kind of superstar that could win a game all on his own if he gets hot. That said, a big PG-13 performance probably only accounts for one win (two at most), while the rest of this series might just come down to the fact that the Raptors are a better team than the Pacers in most measurable ways. It’s hard to be too confident when considering the team’s recent history, but this should be a relatively easy series for Toronto (especially if their last regular season matchup was any indication). Raptors in 5.
Harsh: The Pacers are a good defensive team. Ian Mahinmi’s come into his own this year, and the Pacers are a very stingy defense with him. If they go ultra small and use Solomon Hill at the 4, and operate in transition, I could potentially see them causing some problems. Again, if the Raptors are disciplined defensively, the Pacers will struggle to score. I’m not worried about that as much as I am about the Pacers doubling our guards in the paint incessantly, and using Mahimi and 4 smaller guys to scramble and cover the gaps. I think the Raptors offense is robust enough to weather all of that though. The Raptors suddenly have a lot of shooting and versatility in all positions to still find ways to score. This is a really really good team. Raptors in 5.
Dan: Paul George. He has the chance to be the best player in the series, particularly if Kyle Lowry’s elbow is an issue. If two teams are a coin flip, you generally give the edge to the team with the best player. Fortunately for Toronto, these teams aren’t a coin flip. George might steal a game or even two, but the Raptors just need to play the way they have all season -- deliberately. If they control the pace, this should be a relatively easy series. Raptors in 6.
Kevin: The Hill trio concerns me most. Three guys with the same name? Spooky. When Solomon, Jordan and George get on the court together, it’s game over for their opponents. Nah just kidding, Paul George is very clearly the scariest weapon in Frank Vogel’s arsenal. Still, I think the Raptors will win in six games. The Raps are just a lot deeper than the Pacers, and I think bench scoring will make a huge difference.
John: Look, we all know the Raptors have the two-way ability to simply outscore the Pacers on any given night. The only caveat to that - and what I’m most worried about - is Indiana’s three-point shooting. This is a team that struggles to score at almost every non-Paul George position (and Carroll/Powell should be effective deterring him). The Raptors need to rotate defensively and stop CJ Miles, George Hill, and others from having Otto Porter-esque breakouts. They have the roster to do it; they didn’t last year. For that reason, I’m going Raptors in 5.
What would the repercussions be if the Raptors lost in the first round for the third straight year?
Russell: GM Masai Ujiri’s responses after each early exit have been calm and measured, so I would be surprised if he and the team decided to completely hit the reset button on all they’ve built over these last few seasons should the same fate befall them this year. That said, they would almost certainly have to move on from Dwane Casey. There would probably still be an effort made to retain DeMar DeRozan and keep Lowry, but three straight first-round exits demands some kind of shakeup, and that typically comes from the head coaching position. The status quo simply won’t do in the eyes of anyone if the Raptors are embarrassed for the third straight year, regardless of how much better they’ve been in the regular season or how many Atlantic Division banners they have hanging in their lonely rafters.
Harsh: Dwane Casey loses his job. And depending on how they lose, maybe they consider letting DeMar walk. I think you’d see sweeping changes across the roster though. Losing in the first round three straight years, despite being a higher seed would warrant a reshuffling of the roster. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ve grown to really like this team.
Dan: It would depend on how it went down of course, but if Toronto loses to Indiana, I’d say it’s time to move on from Dwane Casey. The team plays hard for him and Kyle Lowry has said the team wants him back, but with his assistants replaced after last years drubbing and no contract extension yet tendered, it’s pretty clear that it’s shape up or ship out for the head coach. I still think you bring DeMar DeRozan back, but it certainly would make that more of a question than the no-brainer it is currently.
Kevin: I think it would be pretty drastic. First, Dwane Casey would get chopped, and then the team would address its roster. I think DeMar DeRozan would be left to sign elsewhere and the front office would look to replace him with a starting caliber power forward. Major changes would need to be made to convince everyone (fanbase included) that this team is for real.
John: As everyone else detailed, Casey is out the door if they lose. I think re-signing DeRozan is still on the table, simply because having Lowry and DeRozan on your roster remains a significant draw for potential free agents/trade chips. Retooling the roster, not burning everything to the ground and rebuilding, seems the more likely option with playoff personnel.