Here we are. The fat lady is singing on the 2017-18 regular season, the best regular season in Toronto Raptors franchise history, by any measure.
Team record for wins? Check.
Chance to win 60 games for the first time in franchise history? Check.
Clinched the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference? Check.
Control over who their first-round opponent might be? Check. Sort of.
Even though we’re headed into the last game of the season, there are still a variety of scenarios (eight separate ones to be exact) that can play out in regards to the Raptors opening round match-up, which will begin this weekend.
There are three games that matter: Toronto vs. Miami, Washington vs. Orlando and Philadelphia vs. Milwaukee.
A fourth game, Philadelphia vs. Cleveland, could potentially have an effect on the second round draw, but let’s not count our genetically-engineered dinosaurs before they’re hatched, eh, Wayne Knight?
Let’s try and make some sense of it.
After the Wizards win over the Celtics last night, in five of the eight scenarios, the standings remain essentially as they are and Toronto will take on Washington. If Washington loses to Orlando tonight, that will be the case, no matter what happens in the other two games. If Miami beats Toronto and both Washington and Milwaukee also win, the standings again remain as they are, and we’re looking at Raps-Wizards this weekend.
Here’s where things can get interesting.
If Toronto and Washington both win tonight, the Wizards will jump the Heat in the standings and Toronto will take on Miami, and the Wizards will play the Celtics.
If Toronto loses, Washington wins and Philadelphia beats Milwaukee, due to tiebreakers, both Miami and Washington will jump the Bucks in the standings and we’ll be looking at a Raptors-Bucks first round battle for the second straight season.
Still with me?
It essentially comes down to this: the Raptors have quite a bit of control of their own destiny. If they want to avoid the Bucks, all they have to do is beat Miami tonight. If they’d rather play the Heat, all they have to do is beat the Heat tonight and hope Washington wins. If they’d rather play the Wizards or the Bucks and they don’t care who, they can go ahead and rest their entire team tonight, let Miami win and let the chips fall where they may.
The thing is, I don’t think it matters all that much. The Raptors don’t need to ‘avoid’ anybody.
Last night on the HQ podcast with Russell Peddle and Sean Woodley, we discussed each of these potential match-ups and the pros and cons. You should check it out!
A quick Coles notes: none of these opponents are particularly scary for a team as good as the Raptors. The Bucks have the best player but lack depth and consistency; the Wizards are 7-12 since the All-Star Break — they have a very good top end of their roster but seem poorly-coached and may actually actively hate one another; the Heat are wonderfully coached and would be a pain in the ass, but lack the overall talent to best Toronto in a seven-game series.
So take a deep breath. It’s all over but the crying. Wait, no! Not the crying. The roiling anxiety/euphoria of a Raptors playoff run!
Here are your details for tonights game.
Where to Watch
TSN, 8 p.m. EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Heat- Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside
Toronto – Lucas Nogueira (hamstring - questionable), Fred VanVleet (lower back tightness - questionable)
Miami - Dion Waiters (out for the season)
Here are your keys to tonight’s game.
Stay in Rhythm
Toronto has lost nine straight first-round Game 1’s. This dates back to the Raptors-Pistons series way back when, when Vince Carter was the franchise centrepiece and Jerry Stackhouse was not the coach of the 905, but the scoring leader for the opposition.
It’s an odd streak, as it has lived through three distinct eras of the team. Since the Lowry-DeRozan-Casey triumvirate have been in control however, a major criticism each season has been that the Raptors have consistently entered the playoffs distinctly out-of-rhythm.
This ‘rhythm’ issue can often be attributed to an injury to Kyle Lowry, the engine that makes this Raptors team go. The style changes implemented this year have worked to make sure Toronto can function if and when Lowry isn’t quite at his best and have, more importantly, worked to keep him as fresh as possible for the post-season.
After playing roughly 37 minutes per game each of the past two seasons, Lowry was down to just over 32 minutes per game this year, a reduction in workload that Toronto hopes pays dividends when it matters most.
Let Lowry get his shots tonight, keep him ‘in rhythm’ but very importantly...
Don’t Be A Hero, Kyle
Lowry is a player with one speed. DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka, I don’t worry about. They’ll go out there, get their shots up, play under control, and take care of business. They’ll also come out and get their rest when they need it. The rest of the roster is young and strong and should play as many minutes as they need to get ready for the weekend.
Lowry is the psycho who dove into the crowd after a loose ball last game, in a meaningless contest against the Pistons; he can’t turn it off and he should not be trusted. If he has a good first half, take the man out and put him in bubble wrap.
Go For 60
I’ll re-iterate — it doesn’t particularly matter who Toronto plays in the first round. What would be a nice cherry-on-top for this wonderful Raptors regular season however, is winning 60 games for the first time in franchise history.
It’s an arbitrary number, sure, but winning 60 games is really hard. The only post-Heatles Eastern Conference team that have pulled it off were the Horford-Millsap-led Atlanta Hawks. No team has come particularly close in the two seasons since.
While the playoffs are far more important and getting there healthy and rolling should be the pertinent goal, 60 wins would be a nice rubber-stamp in the history books for a Raptors season that still somehow feels pleasantly surprising on a lot of levels for a fanbase that’s scarred from decades of losing. It would be a sweet little victory along the road to, hopefully, something bigger.
I don’t want Toronto to come out guns-blazing tonight, but if it’s there for the taking, I say go for it. Little victories can be important too.
It’s been a hell of a season. Let’s cap it off in style.