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The Rap-Up Road to 60: Picking winners from Apr. 2-8

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Franchise record for wins in a season? Home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs? This week is kind of a big deal.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

There’s the 2001-02 season when Toronto won 12 of their final 14 games (without an injured Vince Carter, mind you) to clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the season. There’s the 2009-10 season when Toronto lost, essentially, a play-in game at home against Chicago and missing the playoffs by one game. There’s the 2015-’16 season when Toronto missed the 1-seed by one measly game. (Think that would’ve been helpful in the Conference Finals vs. Cleveland?)

Then there’s this season. The Raptors have had their fair share of final week drama over the years. Here’s what’s at stake for the Raptors this week. Toronto can set a new franchise-record for wins in a season, clinch the 1-seed, and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

I nailed both predictions last week. Here’s hoping that I’m right for the first two games here, at least.

Tuesday, April 3 @ Cleveland Cavaliers

Now that we’ve gotten the warm and fuzzy stuff out of the way, let’s get to some cold, hard facts. While recent road losses to our conference rivals may be call for concern, there are still plenty of data points that indicate a bounceback is in the cards. The easier stat to pull up is how Toronto has performed against an opponent after previously losing to them: 9-3. Not too shabby. Nine times the Raptors have avenged losses, with the three losses coming against West teams (Warriors, Thunder, Clippers).

You know what stat I like even better? Toronto’s record against opponents whom they face twice within a three-week span. Cherry-picked stat? Debatable. Relevant? Absolutely. The Raptors have had 13 separate instances where they’ve faced the same team twice in a three-week period. In those 26 games (13 teams x 2 games), Toronto has an absurd 22-4 record. They were 10-3 in the first game and 12-1 in the second — never losing to the same team twice. With approximately half of these instances happening within a one-week period, it’s a great indicator of how Toronto adjusts to an opponent in a short time — you know, kind of like the playoffs!

Prediction

You already know where I’m going with this. Toronto may have lost to Cleveland in this very arena less than two weeks ago, but Dwane Casey always comes prepared the second time around. Raptors out-gun the Cavs, 115-100.

Wednesday, April 4 vs. Boston Celtics

Please don’t tell me the Coach of the Year award will be decided by this game. Seriously, if Boston were to win this game, I can absolutely see the media voting for Brad Stevens (whether or not Boston ends up with the 1-seed). Citing his ability to overcome the losses of two All-Stars and another “useful” player, Kyrie Irving (22 games missed by season’s end), Gordon Hayward (81.999 games), and Marcus Smart (28 games). That deserves a ton of credit, but how is Casey not winning this award? With essentially the exact same roster, Toronto has improved in assists (from 30th last year to 6th this year), three-pointers made (21st to 4th), while transforming a group of 90’s babies into the league’s best bench. Rant complete. Now back to the preview.

Since kicking off a four-game Western conference road trip 13 days ago, Boston’s visit to Toronto will be their 6th road game, 4th(!!) different time zone, and second game of a back-to-back after visiting Milwaukee. Stevens is absolutely worthy of all the Coach of the Year consideration, but these are the dog days of the season, and he’ll be coaching a bunch of tired mutts. Aron Baynes is not hitting two triples again (in his previous six-season career, he had only made one before Saturday). The Bench Mob are not combining for 18 points on 6-of-22 shooting. Marcus Morris is not going to be allowed four-step travels again.

(And the 2-3 zone won’t completely flummox Toronto.)

Prediction

If the Tuesday games play out in Toronto’s favour (win in Cleveland + Boston loss in Milwaukee), a home victory over the Celtics would clinch the one-seed. You think the ACC crowd will be slightly amped? No blowout this time, but a Raptors victory all the same, 102-98.

Friday, April 6 vs. Indiana Pacers

After all that stuff you just read about Cleveland (second game, same opponent within three weeks) and Boston (road game on back-end of back-to-back), both conditions apply to this Indiana team. The Pacers will have just completed a home game the night before against the suddenly-healthy Golden State Warriors. Certainly this will be another home win for the Raps, right? Not so fast. The top two teams in turnovers (created) have each visited Toronto after the All-Star break and come away with a victory — Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. Indiana is ranked third and, although they lost to Toronto at home two weeks ago, still managed to create 20 turnovers (season-worst for Toronto is 21).

Another factor is Victor Oladipo’s play of late. In mid-March, he was in a bit of funk with poor shooting and below-average scoring, contributing to losses against Utah, Washington, New Orleans, and Toronto. However, he seems to be righting the ship at the perfect time, leading the Pacers to impressive wins last week against playoff contenders, Clippers, Heat, and the Warriors. In his only other visit to Toronto this season, Oladipo had an outstanding game: 36 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, and 3 triples. Those figures have only been matched one other time this season (DeMarcus Cousins).

Prediction

The Pacers are jostling for home-court advantage against an Embiid-less Sixers squad. They have a tougher schedule than Philly and Cleveland but can pounce on a Raptors team that may be resting on their laurels (should they clinch the 1-seed already). Indiana shows more desperation than Toronto in a 99-94 victory. Alright, I don’t feel comfortable calling this a loss, so here’s a clip from Indy’s previous visit to the 6ix.

Sunday, April 8 vs. Orlando Magic

As a former member of the Toronto Raptors Fan Patrol, this is guaranteed to be a great game to attend. We had a storage area where all of our giveaways were kept. On the final game of the regular season, we’d essentially clean out the closet and give away plenty more paraphernalia than the average game. So, even as Toronto is trampling on the lottery-bound Orlando Magic, you should definitely stick around for all the games and giveaways.

Prediction

Oh, you wanted analysis? After Orlando’s loss in Atlanta, the Magic have moved “up” to the third-best odds in the draft lottery by tying the Hawks in the loss column. With Memphis inexplicably winning twice last week (obviously new to the tanking game), Orlando has a clear path to having the second-most balls in the lottery. Keep on tanking, Orlando! Toronto wins 108-90.

Road to 60 Outlook

If you told me at the beginning of the season that we’d even be discussing 60 wins — let alone 50 — I’d think you were on something. As it stands, Toronto is looking at home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, a franchise-record 57th win, and a still-realistic shot at 60 wins. If the Raps actually do go 3-1 this week, Toronto will need to win their final two games on the road — Detroit (easy) and Miami (not so easy) — to get to 60.

What are your predictions for this week?