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Standings Watch: Surprise! The Raptors are still in first

Many spots in the East’s playoff picture are still up for grabs, except one: the Raptors are going to finish number one, no matter what.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been two weeks since we revisited the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings, and do you know why? Because the Raptors have remained on top for the duration. In fact, they’ve been in first place since February 11th. It’s been over a month, and it appears unlikely to stop. Can you believe that?

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Toronto-based team if we weren’t at least somewhat curious — or nervous — about what else was happening in the standings. It’s why the Standings Watch exists after all, to document the minute shifting of the teams throughout the conference, and monitor the playoff match-up scenarios.

Is this overkill? Perhaps. But at the very least it gives us a chance to trumpet once again: the Raptors are a lock for first place. Hooray!

The Standings

The Takeaways

With the Celtics imploding due to injury, the number one seed is a certainty for Toronto now. So let’s set that aside and focus on the rest of the conference.

The Cavaliers, the Raps’ truest threat, are still very much in the mix, having regained the three-seed amidst some, uh, inspired 5-5 play, and some otherworldly LeBron James performances. The Pacers and Wizards are a mortal lock for the “post-season series we care about the least” and, to my mind, the Sixers are set for the six-seed, despite being somehow just 1.5 games back of third. Man, it’s wild.

None of this really matters to the Raptors, as they’re just watching the Heat and Bucks swap spots back and forth in seventh and eighth. As our guy Joel Stephens profiled here and here, both teams are different post-All-Star break, but what that means to them is still unclear — and what it means to Toronto is even more unclear.

The Hope

OK, I’ll lay out the optimal scenario: the Heat slide to eighth, which keeps Giannis away from the Raptors. (Yes, I realize the Bucks have been weirdly bad as of late, but I want no part of Giannis in a must-win opening round playoff series.) Meanwhile, the Cavaliers hold on to third. You know where I’m going with this.

A Toronto-Miami series would be a pain, but I’m extremely confident the Raptors’ superior top-end talent would win out. At the same time, the Sixers put a physical scare into the Cavs, the Wizards and Pacers do whatever, and the Celtics get taken out by the Bucks (book that 100 percent; sorry not sorry Boston).

Does this set the Raptors on a collision course with either Indiana or Washington? Yes it does. It’s a series that Toronto can also win — though I like their chances against the Pacers much more than against a weirdly cagey Wizards team.

The other side of the East bracket will be mayhem though, with the Cavaliers forced to reckon with Giannis (after dispatching Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons). Assuming LeBron makes it through that gauntlet, then the Raptors could be waiting. I’m not saying Toronto could up-end the Cavs once it’s all said and done, but I’m definitely not not saying it.

Am I getting way ahead of myself here? Of course! But think about it and tell me this is not your ideal scenario too.