In Casino Royale — one of his many James Bond books — Ian Fleming wrote, of gambling, that “the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck.” As a prognosticator of sorts, I try my best to ensure my analysis is good enough that luck doesn’t negatively factor into the final result.
Every week for the last four years, I’ve put my journalistic credibility on the line by previewing and predicting the Toronto Raptors’ games for the upcoming week in The Rap-Up. There’s an obvious risk to prognosticating the outcome of a game, especially during a time when a player/coach could surprisingly test positive for COVID at any given moment. Layer on top of that a Monday post submission that predicts games played on Saturday or Sunday!
Despite these hurdles, I can pat myself on the back for putting together a win-loss record of predictions that have performed better than the Raptors over these four years! So, why stop at games a week in advance? Is there an opportunity for greater returns as we turn our sights towards the playoffs?
Our friends over at DraftKings have some interesting NBA Futures odds that might be worth investing in.
Toronto Raptors are +3500 to win the Atlantic Division
How will Toronto fare the rest of the way?
This number was at +1600 before the Pistons game, so the timing is perfect to get a good return on investment. Let’s dive a little deeper and see how likely the Raptors can claim the Atlantic.
Toronto currently sits 3rd in the division (20 games remaining), 4.5 games behind Philadelphia (21), 2.5 games behind Boston (17), and 3 games ahead of Brooklyn (18).
According to Tankathon and Basketball-Reference, Toronto has a slightly easier schedule remaining (13th easiest) that, as you’ll read below, could be less difficult than records imply. The Raptors are favoured to win each of their 10 remaining home games — a factor that has only improved with the recent lifting of restrictions and return to full capacity again.
On Sunday, the Raptors visit a Cavaliers team showing signs of (finally) falling back to the pack. Cleveland has lost four of their last five, including their last two home games — both to teams with worse records. Darius Garland’s absence from three of those games could be to blame, but his return on Wednesday proved otherwise, as the Cavs were blown out by 21 at home to Charlotte.
Toronto’s next road game is in San Antonio to face a Spurs team that’s currently 12th in the Western Conference and closing in on tank season.
Next up, on March 11th, is the Phoenix Suns, who will be without Chris Paul. Very likely to be joining him on the sidelines against the Raptors is Devin Booker, who tested positive for COVID on March 2nd. Even if Booker plays, he probably won’t be at 100%, considering the lack of basketball activity during his quarantine. Let’s also not forget how well the Raptors played the Suns at full strength.
The following night, the Raptors travel to Denver. Back-to-backs that involve flying to the Mile High City should be prohibited by the NBA Schedule Makers. However, this isn’t necessarily an automatic loss for Toronto. In addition to playing very well against the Nuggets a couple of weeks ago, Nick Nurse played OG Anunoby for 37+ minutes without knowing he had injured his ring finger on his shooting hand. OG would shoot 4-for-16 and only score 9 points. Also, the Raptors have the 2nd-best record in the NBA when playing with zero days rest.
This was the dunk in the 2nd quarter where I think he broke his finger. He was getting treatment for it at halftime pic.twitter.com/FihGDP5ynZ— OG's Scarf (@OGsHeadband1) February 25, 2022
A few nights later, Toronto visits a Clippers squad they’ve already defeated this season. Los Angeles is starting to round into form lately, but this is still a team that’s missing its three best players in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Norm Powell.
The only two games I haven’t mentioned figure to be the toughest part of the remaining schedule — a road back-to-back in Philadelphia and Chicago. The Raptors have already won in Philadelphia this season (Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid missed the game). In their first meeting in Chicago, Toronto overcame a 19-point second-half deficit — on the road, in the second game of a back-to-back — and had the lead in the dying minutes. The Raptors would eventually lose but it was a turning point as Toronto would follow that game with a season-high 8-game win streak.
Look, I’m not saying the Raptors will win all 20 remaining games, but when factoring in their play against upcoming opponents and a little bit of injury luck, Toronto can outperform the 13 games they’re favoured and win 15 or 16 games. Let’s take 15 as the hypothetical wins total and see how the competition stacks up.
How about their Atlantic Division foes?
With a (hypothetical) 15-5 record the rest of the way, we can already eliminate Brooklyn from this analysis. Kevin Durant’s return will surely help, but with Kyrie Irving still missing home games (at least for now), the Nets aren’t running the table.
You can say the same for the Boston Celtics. Yes, they’re the hottest team and have won 15 of their last 18 games. However, 8 of those victories came against sub .500 teams, and 4 more wins came against teams missing key players in Miami (Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler), Brooklyn (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden/Ben Simmons for both games), and Denver (Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, and Monte Morris). Boston still has road games in Golden State, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Memphis. Oh, and one more in Toronto that just happens to be the second game of a back-to-back. Tankathon has Boston with the 3rd-hardest schedule remaining among East teams, and justifiably so.
Let’s turn our attention to the favourite from Philadelphia. For Toronto to catch the Sixers, and bag you a nice bounty of cash, Philadelphia will have to lose 9 or 10 of their remaining 21 games.
Tankathon has the Sixers with the 6th-hardest schedule remaining among teams in the East. They have played the fewest number of back-to-backs in the league (six) and have five still to play, including a Cleveland-Miami double-header this weekend. They have one game remaining against Brooklyn, who they are 1-2 against this season. The one victory came with Irving out, but he should be in the next meeting since it’s in Philadelphia. Their meeting with the Suns figures to be tougher than the Raptors’ because Booker should be back at full strength. They have four games remaining against the Clippers, Pacers, and Mavericks, who they have a collective 0-3 record against this season.
You can start to see a path to nine losses for the Sixers, and that’s even before mentioning games against Chicago, Milwaukee, and Miami (yes, a second game). The ultimate swing factor would be the two games against Toronto. The first of two remaining meetings falls in the middle of a 3-games-in-4-night stretch, sandwiched between games against Dallas and Miami. The second meeting could be a Division decider in the final days of the season. Philadelphia wraps up their road schedule with three road games in five nights with the final game in Toronto. If we remove the last meeting at Scotiabank Arena (Raptors missing 8 players due to COVID, including Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet), and the “home” game before that (Tampa doesn’t count), Toronto had won the previous 16(!) home games against the Sixers.
Toronto Raptors are +4000 to win the Eastern Conference
If your gambling itch craves a larger return, can I interest you in some NBA Finals Futures? Odds as long as 40-1 seem a lot longer when there are 7 teams with better odds to take the East. But if we learned anything from the 2020 Playoffs (seriously, any team but the Celtics and we’d have a lifetime of gloating as Kawhi-less champs), matchups matter.
If the above scenario occurs, with the Raptors claiming the Atlantic Division, then Toronto is hosting a first-round series and likely the #2 or #3 seed. Considering their youth and lack of playoff experience, a first-round date with the Cavaliers would be an ideal matchup.
A second-round series against the #2 or #3 seeded Bulls could also be favourable. Chicago has 7 players who have started at least 10 games this season. Of those 7 players, 4 have never been to the playoffs (Lonzo Ball, Zach Lavine, Ayo Dosunmu, and Coby White), 1 has played 6 career playoff minutes (Javonte Green), and 1 has never made it past the first round, or even reached a Game 6 (Nikola Vucevic). That puts all the weight and pressure on the shoulders of DeMar DeRozan, who has an (ahem) interesting playoff career.
With this dream scenario pitting some variation of Miami, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, and/or Milwaukee on the other side of the bracket, the surviving team will have been battered and bruised and ripe for the picking. Should the defending champions make it through, you can start making plans with your cash winnings because you already know how a Bucks-Raptors playoff series will end!