As the season narrows to its final point on the horizon in just 11 days, the Raptors have to get through six more games which will very much decide their fate. As of today, nothing is clinched at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture — least of all the ninth and tenth seeds of this year’s play-in tournament.
Continuing the theme of zooming in, let’s get right to it and review the East standings of interest to us:
Those are the teams involved and spots up for grabs right now. Yes, the Hornets are a mere two games up on the Pacers in the eighth spot, but with LaMelo Ball back I feel comfortable in saying they’ll keep their place. (Ditto the Heat, who likely won’t sink below seventh.)
That leaves the four above-noted teams — the Pacers, Wizards, Raptors, and Bulls — vying for just two spots and a wild ride to make it into the 2021 playoffs. The narratives for all four of these teams have flipped considerably from the pre-season and during this year itself. It’s been something to watch in real-time, particularly for us Raptors fans as we’ve had to watch the team crumble apart from afar.
But before we get drawn into that, let’s review the other three teams in play.
The team with the most positive momentum right now is the Washington Wizards, which is an insane sentence to write. When they traded for Russell Westbrook, it felt like a desperate move. And if you thought Toronto’s start was bad, remember that the Wizards opened the season on a 5-15 sequence and had to deal with COVID-related absences as well. Somehow, the team has clicked into place down the stretch, including a run of eight wins in a row and 11 of their last 14.
In the process, Westbrook has put up another triple-double average, which, empty or not, has made a difference for the Wizards. They’ve also been bolstered by Rui Hachimura as a starter, along with Davis Bertans and Robin Lopez off the bench, and — har har — former Raptor Alex Len, who has slotted into their dang starting lineup. That Toronto’s season may now hinge on beating the Wizards tonight is a cruel, cruel irony — but it is indeed true.
At this moment, despite having been behind for most of the season, I think it may be fairly easy to slot the Wizards in at the ninth seed, giving them some breathing room in this inexplicably tight down-card tournament race. If I had been a gambling man, I too would have predicted that the Wizards were due for a severe humbling this season, yet here they are, large and in charge (and scrambling onto these strange play-in lifeboats first).
One of my favourite NBA Twitter follows is @NBACouchside, not because he provides any special insight into basketball, but because he is so angry and despondent about his team of choice, the Chicago Bulls. Now, Bulls fans have had some extremely high times in our lifetimes — we were all Bulls fans as kids because of Michael Jordan, as you’ll recall — but it’s been something of a desert the last few years (prior to the team’s runs with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, the last of which came in 2017).
As the Bulls have gone 4-11 over their past 15 games, our guy Kev has taken to changing his Twitter name to “Bulls Stink. SMH” which is a pretty apt description of where the team is at right now. And to be clear: the Bulls were trying very hard to get better! At the trade deadline, they were one of the squads who made a clear win-now move, acquiring Nikola Vucevic to add far more pop to their starting lineup. Unfortunately, he’s missed the team’s last two games, and when coupled with All-Star Zach LaVine’s absence since April 16 due to COVID protocols, it has spelled trouble for Chicago. It has also meant the team has had to give more minutes to Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, and Denzel Valentine who — according to NBA Couchside, whose insights I have no reason to question — all stink.
The Bulls are going to stay in 12th and miss the playoffs entirely for the fourth straight year. If nothing else, I hope this allows the brand of despondent Bulls fans I most enjoy (we can add dudes like John Wilmes and Patrick Cosmos in here too, sure why not) to carry on unimpeded.
I’m not sure who to believe here, but it sure sounds like there is some serious trouble brewing in Indiana — and it all starts with head coach Nate Bjorkgren. According to (piles of) reports, Bjorkgren has not only failed as head coach of the Pacers but he’s revealed himself to be something of, well, I’ll just come out and say it: a two-faced psycho. This is particularly hard to square with the reports that came out of Toronto, whereby all accounts he was a much-liked and respected assistant!
Bjorkgren clearly sounds like he's out of his element as a head coach and the stuff about his time with the Raptors raises some flags, certainly, but at the same time, I don't know if they'd just make this stuff up pic.twitter.com/psTJ95ypSA— Joseph Whalen (@JoeWhalen19) May 6, 2021
Could it be that perhaps Indiana assistant coach Greg Foster is the real agent of chaos here? Could it be that perhaps poor Nate, having gotten his first taste of an NBA head coaching gig, is in over his head and cracking up? Could it just be that the Pacers, racked by injuries all season, had no real way to compete? (Or could it all be part of the master plan by Nick Nurse and the Raptors, who allowed Bjorkgren his chance elsewhere, wished him bon voyage and good luck in Indiana, and then watched as he destroyed the franchise while waiting with open arms for his return? Hmm.)
Whatever the case — I’ll stick to blaming the owners — the Pacers are deep into the slide of their lives and it is not impossible to imagine them falling right out of contention. Yes, they’re three and a half games up on Toronto right now, but they’ve also got games coming up against playoff teams (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and a suddenly desperate Lakers squad), along with a showdown with the Wizards and — ahoy! — the Raptors, on the very last day of the season. (There’s also a game against Cleveland in there, who knows what could happen there.)
It would be quite the collapse if Indiana managed to go 1-6 over their last seven games. But ask yourselves this: when you look at those reports up there, when you think about Bjorkgren as a head coach, when you recall that T.J. Warren, a fulcrum of the Pacers’ offense, underwent surgery allegedly just to not play for him, and when you look at Indiana’s upcoming opponents... do you believe in them?
Here we go: I think the Pacers will indeed continue to drop, falling into 11th place, which means...
Hot damn, they did it! In this calculation, the Raptors, with all their injuries and bad luck and questionable Tampa vibes, managed to win just enough of their final six games to sneak into 10th. How did they do it? Who cares! Onward!
To pull this off, it goes without saying the Raptors have to beat the Wizards tonight. And they’ll have to close out the year with a win against Indiana. Those are the two must-haves. Can the Raptors then go 3-1 over those other four contests, at home vs. Memphis and the Clippers, and on the road against Chicago and Dallas? When I write it all out, it suddenly feels possible.
We’ll check back in next week in the final edition of Standings Watch to either gloat, bemoan our fate, or anxiously await the final three games of the season.