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Will the Raptors grab and hold the 3-seed?

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Our question of the week gets very serious indeed.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Apologies if this recalls the infamous post-season positioning talk of the Raptors’ late 2014-15 season, but there’s just no way to avoid it. Toronto is a consistent presence in the playoffs these days, and while they’ve yet to clinch officially, the team will show up in the post-season again for the fourth straight year. It’s quite an accomplishment for a franchise whose previous playoff runs acted as mere reprieves from a seemingly unending slog of despair. What a time, and so on.

But to the matter at hand: the Raptors are in fourth right now, which would likely mean a first round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, owing to their and, assuming they moved on, a showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The problems with this alignment are obvious.

First: the Hawks are a better team than the Pacers, Bucks or even the Heat — though they’re pretty terrifying as an 8-seed — the teams currently in sixth, seventh, and eighth.

Second: in a counting-your-chickens-before-they-hatch move, the Raptors do not want the Cavs in the second round. Setting aside the hope that the Raps would pose a stiffer challenge to Cleveland this time around, we know the likely outcome. LeBron James strides on into the third round; Toronto feels sad.

This leaves only two options: win a lot, or lose a lot. (There’s a third option here involving some sort of criminal enterprise and an attack on the Cavaliers, but it is much too macabre to even consider; we are a moral people.)

After that insane win over the Bulls last night, the Raptors have 11 games remaining. They currently sit a half (0.5!) game out of third place. The — [swallows immense rage] — Washington Wizards are above them, then the Celtics in second. The Raptors hold the tiebreaker over both teams. Not the best situation to be in, but certainly not the worst.

So, can they grab and hold the 3-seed?

Schedule Review

I’ll restrict this discussion to just the Raptors and the Wizards because, to be honest, it feels very unlikely the Celtics will tumble out of the 2-seed now. (If anything, the top seed in the conference may be up for grabs for Boston; what a stomach turning thought.)

The Raptors, as mentioned, have 11 games left — five at home and six on the road. Their strength of schedule the rest of the way ranks them 17th in the league (which is much better than the Wizards’, uh, dead last). Toronto’s opponents are, in order:

@MIA, @DAL, ORL, CHA, IND, PHI, @IND, @DET, MIA, @NYK, @CLE

There is one back-to-back in there, on the road between Indiana and Detroit, but other than that the Raptors basically play every second night for the final run of the season.

On top of that, there are some imminently winnable games here. I’m looking specifically at Orlando, Charlotte, Philly, and New York. That’s the bottom rung, games the Raps should definitely win. Then we get to the 50/50 games — Dallas and Indiana — of the three games, all are winnable on paper, but who knows? Then the final scary tier: Miami, Detroit (road game, second night of a back-to-back) and, of course, Cleveland. The Heat are fighting for their playoff lives right now, same goes for Detroit, and while the Cavs will possibly be resting come the last game of the season, they may also be looking to hang on to the 1-seed.

My back-of-the-napkin estimate: Raptors go 7-4.

As for the Wizards, their schedule is tougher. Of the 12 games they have left, here’s what’s in store:

ATL, BKN, @CLE, @LAL, @LAC, @UTA, @GSW, CHA, @NYK, MIA, @DET, @MIA

Woof.

Having a five-game western road swing near the end of the season has to suck. If I didn’t hate the Wizards so much, I’d almost feel bad for them. As it is, I’m struck by the thought that the Raptors may do better than them over the season’s final days. Applying the same rigour to the Wiz’s games I get four winnable games (BKN, LAL, CHA, NYK), some 50/50 couples in ATL, MIA and DET, and a hard road for the rest.

Because I’m petty, let’s go with 6-6 for the Wiz. (You could talk me into 7-5 but why give them the benefit of the doubt.)

Additional Factors

There are mitigating issues here for the Raptors’ good vibes. One is the most immediate problem: starting power forward (and human godsend) Serge Ibaka is likely to miss somewhere in the area of 2-4 games with a suspension. That’s what happens when you take a swing at Robin Lopez, even in self-defense.

With Ibaka out for a few games, the Raptors will need Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker (and maybe Jakob Poeltl) to step up. It’s not impossible — Patterson and Tucker were lights out down the stretch last night, and Carroll’s shot has been back on in the last couple of games — but the lack of Ibaka is a concern.

But of course, the real issue here relates to Kyle Lowry. Will he return at all this regular season? The original time table of 4-5 weeks had him available in early April, in time for perhaps the last 3-4 games of the season. The Raptors have been 9-5 since Lowry went out, but that’s largely due to their defense (which will take a hit sans Ibaka). Adding Lowry to the offense, even one still trying to re-discover his shooting stroke, would be a huge boon.

As for the Wizards, there’s nothing seriously wrong with them. (I mean, beyond existing.) As long as the five-some of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat (and, sure, Bojan Bogdanovic) are healthy, they’re a dangerous team.

Likely Outcome

If we stick to my math, a 7-5 stretch for the Raptors puts them at 49-33 on the season. Meanwhile, 6-6 gives the Wizards a 48-34 record. As such, my non-scientific approach has the Raptors finishing third. If we go with the more conservative 7-5 pitch for the Wiz, we get a tie, and the Raptors still get the 3-seed.

Either way, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the margin for error here for Toronto is very thin. A .500 stretch, or, heaven forbid, a dumb losing streak, would sink any attempt at reclaiming third and, yes, avoiding a potential matchup with Cleveland in the second round.

Of course, if the Cavaliers manage to slide into second...

Stick to the plan: win as many games as you can and let fate sort the rest out. Can the Raptors do it?