Since the inception of the 2021-2022 season, it seemed like an inevitability that the Raptors would fare better than their surveyors expected. Simply said, the construction of their roster was far superior to what last year’s record in Tampa suggested. Betting sites, such as jeuxdecartes.net projected the Raptors regular season win total to net out in the 36 range, implying that they would wind up fighting for their dignity in the play-in tournament.
“Underestimated” and “overlooked” are tattooed on the gut of this franchise. For the ninth time in ten years, the arctic dinos surpassed Vegas’ projected win total in especially timely fashion, with nearly a month of games to spare. After tonight’s unnecessarily close victory over the league-worst Houston Rockets, they also guaranteed themselves a top-five seed in the East.
Bracketology states that five-seeds duel four-seeds to the brink of elimination, and thus, this is the route which the Raptors will proceed down. However, despite the fact that only three days remain in the regular season, Toronto still doesn’t know where their private jet will be taking them next week: Philadelphia, or Boston?
After effortlessly downing the Detroit Pistons tonight, the Milwaukee Bucks clinched the second seed, leaving the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers to fight over third and fourth like the last cookie at a birthday party. Presumably, given the injuries that the Chicago Bulls are dealing with (most notably, Lonzo Ball), and the recent skid that they’ve taken (dropping four games in a row, and seven of their last ten), it would seem sensible that both Atlantic division rivals would prefer to meet DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine in Round 1.
Boston owns the tiebreaker over Philadelphia, meaning that if both squads finish with identical records, Boston would take the third seed and Philly would slot into the fourth. There is, however, one way in which the opposite could occur.
Boston has one game remaining this season in Memphis on April 10th.
Philadelphia has two games remaining this season: hosting the Indiana Pacers on April 9th, and the Pistons on April 10th.
If Philadelphia beats both of their opponents, which they are favoured to, and Boston falls to Memphis, Philadelphia would take the third seed and Toronto would replay their thrilling 2020 series against a Tatum-led Celtics squad. Anything but that scenario, and the Raptors will get another shot at making Joel Embiid cry.
Before digging up any advanced stats, designing spreadsheets to see who has more defensive weapons capable of containing Nick Nurse’s all 6’9″ lineup, or placing heart-and-soul-driven bets on who you think the Raptors will have the honour of defeating in Round 1, it’s crucial to note the key pieces that each squad would be missing as a result of their vaccination statuses.
Per Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, both Jaylen Brown and Al Horford of the Celtics are ineligible to travel to Canada. Similarly, the 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle will be unable to play any road games against Toronto.
On Wednesday night, we witnessed the impact that Thybulle’s presence – or lack thereof – had on his team’s ability to contain the Raptors on the perimeter. Across a seven game series, if it were to go the distance, Doc Rivers would need to find creative schemes to try and slow down Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet, because clearly Georges Niang and Tobias Harris are not the answers.
On the other hand, the Celtics, who have had a top ranked defense since the All-Star break, are already without their defensive anchor, Robert Williams, due to a surgery he had last week to repair his torn meniscus. Tossing Brown and Horford to the sidelines would further weaken their defense, and leave them with the likes of Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, or Luke Kornet to protect the rim.
Factoring in that both rosters will be significantly weakened on the defensive side as a result of Canada’s travel restrictions may provide a glimmer of hope that beyond making the postseason, the Raptors could actually make some noise at the party. Within a few days, Toronto and its fans will have a better idea of who they can expect to see on the other side of the court come April 16th, but regardless of who it is, they’ll stand a solid chance.