With the buzz of the All-Star break dying down, Toronto can now focus solely on usurping and securing a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Currently, the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat all find themselves ahead of the Raptors in the standings; however, just five total games separate these six seeds, meaning we’re likely in for some shuffling as the season heads towards its end.
In preparation for this latter portion of the season, I pored over the Raptors’ remaining schedule and selected five stand-out games that fans should mark down on their calendars. In chronological order, let’s discuss what makes these games particularly enticing:
March 20: Philadelphia 76ers
This game against the 76ers is sure to be exciting on multiple levels. Firstly, I’m not expecting the novelty of the Joel Embiid and James Harden pairing to wear off until they (inevitably?) crash and burn, so the crowd in Philly will no doubt be raucous and create a playoff atmosphere. Novelty aside, though, this potentially deadly duo will be a spectacle on the court, and the results will be fascinating regardless of outcome. James Harden is reportedly set to play this Friday, so by March 20 we should to see this 76ers team at full health.
March 21: Chicago Bulls
With Toronto creeping up the standings and looking to take down any team in its path, DeMar DeRozan will almost certainly be out for blood this evening against his former team. As well, Zach LaVine was recently cleared to return to play after dealing with a knee issue for much of the season, so hopefully both high-flyers are feeling good and ready to put on a show. Noted potential absences are Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, who may still be sidelined with injuries in a month’s time. Regardless, this game will be prove to be compelling.
March 24: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers, despite some occasional bumps in the road, have had an overwhelmingly positive season highlighted by the emergence of Darius Garland and addition of exceptional rookie talent Evan Mobley. Cleveland currently sits in 4th place in the Eastern Conference, but the Raptors are just two games back in the loss column. A win against this Cavaliers team could make a huge difference in seeding come playoff time, so I expect both teams to put it all on the line for this one.
March 28: Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics have been on a major tear since the end of January, going on a nine-game winning streak before losing by one point in the team’s last game before the All-Star break. The Celtics also made some noise at the deadline, bringing in Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs. Currently sitting one spot and 0.5 games ahead of the Raptors, the Celtics are surging and hoping to continue their success into the playoffs. With so many solid teams near the top of the East and only six guaranteed playoff spots, winning this game is vital for the Raptors’ hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament.
April 3: Miami Heat
If all goes according to plan, this game will finally see Kyle Lowry in Toronto again after numerous circumstances prolonged the delay in his return. If you, the reader, are going to attend any game for the rest of the season, I would suggest going to this one (if Kyle is indeed healthy and confirmed to play). His return is guaranteed to be a hallmark moment in franchise history, and I suspect there will be special speeches and/or tribute videos involved.
Even outside of Kyle though, this Miami Heat team is dangerous and always proves to be a challenge. After the Raptors won the last two meetings, including a thrilling triple-overtime game, the Heat should be extra motivated to seek some revenge. For sentimental reasons and beyond, this game should be a memorable one.
Thanks for reading, and sound off in the comments below if there are any other games I didn’t mention that you’re particularly excited for!