When we were last here two weeks ago, the post-season concerns for the Raptors were three-fold: could Toronto grab the one-seed, who would they play in the first round, and how would their potential path to the Finals look. On those counts, we can now answer part one definitively, and even grasp most of part three.
It’s that middle question, regarding the Raptors’ first round opponent, that’s still hanging out there. We just don’t know yet.
With the Raptors now at 53-23, the NBA Eastern Conference standings look like this:
The picture confirms the words: the Raptors are now a full four games back of the Bucks, thanks to some dumb losses (including one due to an insane buzzer-beater from Jeremy Lamb). They’ve got a soft schedule now, but there’s just not enough time to gain ground on Milwaukee now, save for a complete and total collapse down the stretch from Giannis and company. (A fun but unlikely turn of events.)
Given that, and given the usual odds for lower seeds in the NBA playoffs, the Raptors’ likely second round opponent will be the winner of the 3-6 series: the Philadelphia 76ers. While it was fun to imagine an injured Indiana squad hanging on long enough to muck up the works for both the Sixers and the Celtics, the three-seed is clearly out of their grasp now. The Pacers now find themselves three games back of the Sixers, and just one game up on Boston. The 4-5 match-up for them is set, but there’s still a chance Indiana loses home court too. Bummer (I guess).
What then of Toronto’s first round opponent? A glance at the picture above still shows something of a jumble. The owner of the seventh seed right now is the 38-38 Brooklyn Nets, who sit a half-game back of the Pistons. Meanwhile, the Nets are just a half-game up on the Heat, who are in turn just a half game up on the Magic. (Note here that the Hornets have won four in a row — thanks again to that stupid buzzer-beater — and actually have a shot at the playoffs now too.)
ESPN’s Zach Lowe tackled this issue from a different angle today in his 10 Things column, noting that the key match-ups — Brooklyn-Miami, Detroit-Miami, Charlotte-Brooklyn — will all end up tied 2-2. This gives Miami, assuming they “win” their division (with maybe a .500 record, natch), a leg up on any tiebreaker scenarios with the hard-charging Magic. But that does that mean? It means I see no other choice here but to look at the involved teams and their remaining schedules.
Pistons - 38-37
vs. POR, @IND, vs. IND, @OKC, vs. CHA, vs. MEM, @NYK
Nets - 38-38
vs. BOS, vs. MIL, vs. TOR, @MIL, @IND, vs. MIA
Heat - 37-38
@NYK, @BOS, vs. BOS, @MIN, @TOR, vs. PHI, @BKN
Magic - 37-39
@IND, @TOR, vs. NYK, vs. ATL, @BOS, @CHA
OK, here we go. For Detroit, we’re talking seven games, three at home and four on the road, and only one extremely weak opponent (New York). Still, the Blazers are beatable now with Jusuf Nurkic out, they could split the Pacers games, lose to OKC, take Charlotte, lose to the good-time Grizzlies, and clobber the Knicks. That’s a tally of 4-3, good for a record of 42-40. Exciting.
Next up, the Nets. They’ve got the hardest schedule, bar none. I could easily see them dropping five of their last six games. To be nice, and given their fighting spirit, let’s call it 2-4. That leaves them at 40-42. Hard luck.
Moving on to the Heat. They’re one of the most boring teams in the league. That said, they can still crush the Knicks, can fight to a 50-50 mark with Boston (the most 50-50 team out there), beat Minnesota, and then fall to Toronto, Philly, and Brooklyn. That’s a very Heat 3-4, which puts them at 40-42.
Finally, the Magic. Six games left for them, two very winnable, the rest less so. I think they lose to Indy, then beat Toronto, before promptly losing to one of New York or Atlanta. Then they crumble apart and drop the Boston and Charlotte games in some kind of wonky Orlando-y fashion. Where does that leave them? Ah yes, at 2-4, or 39-43 overall.
Did this just conveniently work out? Does it actually all work out? Maybe. For our intents and purposes, this puts the final standings as follows:
6. Detroit Pistons (good luck to Dwane Casey)
7. Miami Heat (because they “won” their division)
8. Brooklyn Nets (but seriously, F Brooklyn)
9. Orlando Magic (next year’s the year, I can feel it)
So there you have it: Raptors vs. Heat in the first round. I have already fallen asleep.