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Standings Watch: Is the picture getting any clearer for the Raptors?

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Uh, no. The Raptors are still easily in first in the Eastern Conference. But their path through the playoffs remains as murky as ever.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I regret to inform you the NBA Eastern Conference standings are at it again. I wish this wasn’t the case, I really do, but certain teams are just not working with the Raptors on this one — in fact, they appear to be actively antagonizing them, and by extension: us. I admit, I do not care for it.

But like any other ancient text, we must study this document, sift through its various messages, and look for answers as to how to live in the present day and on into the future. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it. There are but two weeks left of the NBA’s regular season, and for Toronto, a mere seven games. Time dwindles.

What does this current picture suggest for the Raptors? Let’s take a look.

The Standings

The Takeaways

OK, big picture here first. The Raptors remain 3.5 games up on the Celtics for first place, and barring absolute collapse, it looks like it’ll stay that way. Yes, the Raptors have two more games against Boston — one on the road this Saturday, and at home next week — but given the injury situation over there, even miracle boy Brad Stevens can’t hope to win both those games and force the issue, can he? Moving on.

The rest of the conference is a stupid mess and I hate it. The Cavaliers are clinging to just a half game lead on the hard-charging Philadelphia 76ers, which seems unfathomable to me. The Sixers, by the way, just welcomed Markelle Fultz back, which is something — though part of me thinks it would be funny if his return were to mark the beginning of some downturn for the young dudes in Philly. That hasn’t been the case so far though: their win streak is now at seven games.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers have eight games left (the Sixers have nine). Going by their schedules, it looks like Philly’s path to third is a mite bit easier. The Cavs have four games against abjectly bad teams (CHA, NYK, DAL), but they also have to deal with Anthony Davis, the Wizards, our Raptors, and of course the Sixers themselves. Meanwhile, the Sixers have BKN, DAL, two ATL dates, that hopeless DET squad, CHA, and a showdown with the Bucks (plus, yes, the Cavaliers). You heard it here first: the Sixers are taking the three-seed.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the conference: the Bucks can’t seem to get out of their own way. The Heat beat the Cavs last night and climbed back into seventh, while Milwaukee lost to the dang Clippers. Now we all have to worry about Giannis again. I don’t want to do that.

The Hope

I’ll be honest: the dream of an easy march (relatively speaking!) to the Eastern Conference Finals is likely dead. That optimistic vision would have been: Heat in the first round, Pacers/Wizards in the second, Cavs in the third. (While the Sixers, Bucks, Cavs, and Celtics slap each other around.) Now, it feels increasingly likely we’ll get an absolutely apoplectic Antetokounmpo off the jump, with LeBron lurking in the second round.

Last year was tough, but can the Raptors win both those series? Well, the Bucks are 39-35 and do not look so hot, so I’ll say yes. And the Cavaliers? Well, that’s really the whole point of Toronto’s season — going at LeBron. It was always going to come down to LeBron. It remains difficult to see that future, even if this version of the Raptors is much better than last year’s.

There is not a lot of hope in this section that I have subtitled “The Hope.” Sorry, folks.