We haven’t had much call to review the standing of the Toronto Raptors this season. They began the year in a death struggle with the Bucks for first place, and then slowed down a tick to settle into second. This is where they’ve remained for most of the year, looking up at Milwaukee, just out of reach, down at a trio of teams fighting over the 3-5 spots, and then lording over the rest of the (abject) Eastern Conference.
So then what are we doing here?
As of today, after a win over the Lakers, the Raptors are 49-20 with 13 games left to play. Everything I described in that opening paragraph remains the same, and true, and kind of boring, if we’re being honest. It’s a fun (and funny) time to be a Raptors fan — we’ve gotten so used to being in the playoffs, it’s just taken as our due now.
Regardless, below are the current Eastern Conference standings on March 15th. And below that are some questions to answer.
1) Can the Raptors catch the Bucks?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: The Bucks have 14 games left and sit 2.5 games up on the Raptors. In that time, they play nine home games and five on the road. What’s more, half of those games are against .500 teams — including a pair of dates each with the Hawks and Cavs. Yes, they’ll have to tangle with East playoff hopefuls the Heat and Nets twice apiece, and deal with the Sixers who are fighting for playoff seeding, but it still feels unlikely the Bucks will lose the four or so games necessary for the Raptors to catch them.
This is before we acknowledge that Toronto isn’t about to run the table and go, say, 12-1 over the final stretch of the season. And since the Bucks own the tiebreaker between these two teams, the Raps really would have to put the pedal to the metal to pass them at this point. If I was being brutally honest: the last gasp chance the Raptors had to really put the fear of God in Milwaukee was lost after that embarrassing game to the Cavs. Can’t give up opportunities to gain ground like that! So, second place it is for the Raps.
2) Who will be the Raptors’ first round opponent?
As is tradition for any Standings Watch post, we have to look at the flip-side of the bracket and figure out who Toronto will play in the first round of the post-season. Usually, this has meant a bit of a guessing game as a few .500 (or sub-.500) teams battle it out to lock in as the sixth, seventh, or eighth seed.
Given the conclusions of point number one above, we can conclude the Raptors will indeed take on the seven-seed in the opening round, which points right now to... [drum roll] the Detroit Pistons! This is obviously a wild narrative scenario, with the Dwane Casey-led team storming back into Toronto to try and best the (obviously more) talented Raptors squad. The Pistons own the season series so far with two wins that were both crushing to Toronto in their own unique way. We don’t have to rehash it, but we do have to know that Casey will relish the opportunity to try and stick it to Nick Nurse (his replacement) and the team that fired him (fairly rudely!).
Fortunately, we know about Casey in the playoffs, and we know the Pistons, outside of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, probably do not have the depth to actually beat the Raptors over a seven-game series. Can they annoy Toronto? Oh absolutely. But win? I doubt it.
But then, what if Detroit isn’t the seven-seed?
There is a chance the Pistons move up on the ranks into sixth place, usurping the Brooklyn Nets in the process. The two teams are separated by only one half game, so it’s not an impossible thing to consider. Of course, the Pistons’ hot streak has ended somewhat (they’ve lost two in a row after going 12-2 over their previous 14 games), but the Nets are losing right along with them. It could literally come down to the wire. (Meanwhile, the Heat, at two games out in eighth place, probably don’t have the juice — again.)
For the record, I’m in for a Raptors-Nets series more than a Raptors-Pistons series, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
3) What about the rest of the bracket?
Assuming the Raptors make it out of the first round (a comfortable bet, but with Toronto, ehhh, you never know), then things get really interesting. The next batch of teams are the ones that the Raptors actually have to worry about, especially if they want to get into a presumable Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Bucks, and a Finals date with whomever. (My money’s still on the Warriors, but the Rockets and Thunder are making it interesting.)
As the current standings reveal, here’s how it would go in the Eastern Conference playoffs: the Celtics and Sixers would knock each other around and then winner would play the Bucks in the second round, which is basically the toughest route through the East. Meanwhile the Pacers, a tough out but limited due to the injury-induced absence of Victor Oladipo, would presumably make it into the second round only to run into... the full and healthy Raptors!
Obviously, if we’re picking preferred paths through the post-season, this is the one for Toronto. They’d get some kind of spunky test against Detroit or Brooklyn, and then get the easiest of the three second round teams (sorry Indiana). On top of that, the Bucks would have to duke it out with either the Sixers or the Celtics, both of whom could give them some trouble. (They’d likely still make it to the ECF, but it’d be a fight.)
My point here is that as of this version of the Standings Watch, the Raptors have almost their completely ideal run through the playoffs. Will it happen that way? And more importantly: what will the Raptors do on their own to make things difficult in their usual franchise-defining way? We’ll see.