The Raptors’ season looked to be about over. The team won exactly one game in the month of March, suffered through injury and COVID-19, and seemed prepared at the trade deadline to re-tool and settle into a natural — and dare I say it — almost welcome decline. The 2020-21 Raptors looked exhausted, is what I’m saying. And while I was never quite in on the idea of outright tanking (who wants to watch that?), it felt fair and reasonable to just give the squad the rest of the year off.
But something else happened instead. First, the Raptors found that the short-term stepdown from Norman Powell to Gary Trent Jr. was not so big in the moment and that keeping Kyle Lowry had many benefits. Second, the Raptors added not one, but two functional centres in Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, limited players perhaps, but big men who could move, take up space, rebound, and catch a pass. And third, the organization took turns benching their exhausted core players during a softer stretch in the schedule, allowing for the possibility of a tank job — but also something else. Just when we thought Toronto was about to collapse, their key players instead got a much-needed break, their bench players got some chances to grow in real-time, and now the team is whole and somehow in the mix for the final spot in this year’s play-in tournament, a real berth in the postseason very much up for grabs.
So where do the Raptors stand right now? Let’s look into it at 9 pm on a Thursday night. Here’s the Eastern Conference picture that concerns Toronto:
The Raptors aren’t catching the Heat and Hornets, who will both only need to worry about the Pacers clawing their way into comfort from the ninth spot. To be clear, as per the rules of the play-in tournament, there is no real comfortable spot here. The Heat in seventh will have to play the Hornets, and if they lose that game they’ll have to play the winner of the no. 9 vs. no. 10 showdown. Theoretically, if they lose that game, the Heat would be out of the playoffs entirely, supplanted by the eighth-place team (who slide into seventh) and either the ninth or tenth seed.
This is where the Raptors come in. Right now Toronto is a half-game back of the Wizards, who are riding high on a six-game winning streak (outdoing Toronto’s four-gamer). Meanwhile, the Raptors have a half-game on the Bulls (playing right now against the Hornets), a team on the decline after bringing in big man Nikola Vucevic. They’re without their All-Star Zach LaVine at the moment and are coming off a rough loss last night to the Cavaliers (the 13th place team, sorry they didn’t make the graphic). The wrinkle here: Chicago holds the tiebreaker over the Raptors, who in turn hold the tiebreaker over the Wizards, which means we could be heading towards a little rock-paper-scissors moment if these three teams somehow find themselves all knotted up at the end of the season.
Or the Raptors could do something else: play up to their competition, get hot at just the right time, ride a wave of positive momentum, and take hold of that tenth seed — and a fair shot at an eventual 7-game series in the 2021 NBA Playoffs — with both hands.
Quite frankly, it suddenly doesn’t seem so impossible for the Raptors to do just that.