With last night’s victory over the Utah Jazz, and the Boston Celtics’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder a couple of days ago, the Toronto Raptors now sit comfortably in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, and are a healthy Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell away from a full rotation.
With a 3.5 game lead over the 3rd seeded Celtics, and a 5.0 game lead over the 4th seeded Miami Heat with just eighteen games remaining to be played this season, it looks more and more likely each day that the Raptors will clinch the 2nd seed for the second consecutive year. Nine of the Raptors eighteen games remaining are home games, and ten of the eighteen games are against teams that sit at, or below the .500 mark.
Nothing is set in stone, but for the Celtics to leap Toronto, they would have to end this stretch 3.5 games better than the Raptors, and the Heat’s scenario would be even more unlikely, at 5.0 games ahead. Though both Miami and Boston own the tiebreaker over Toronto, the odds at this point would heavily favour the Raptors to finish at number two. The question then becomes, who will earn the 7th spot in the East, and the nightmare of facing off against the Toronto Raptors?
With the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic in the 7th and 8th seeds respectively, half a game apart from each other, 5.5 games separated from the 9th seed, and 8.5 games behind the 6th seed, there are truly only two choices. Below is a breakdown of what a First Round matchup against either team might look like.
Oh, how sweet it would be if the Raptors were able to repeat their journey through last year’s playoffs, claiming the heads of Orlando, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee in order before reaching The Finals. It’s not impossible, and it’s not even as unlikely as it may seem. The first step to mirroring it however, would be to draw the Magic in Round 1.
This season, Toronto and Orlando have squared off three times already, with Toronto having won all three contests by an average margin of 11.0 points. There is still one more game scheduled on April 15th, which will be the Raptors final game of the season, and potentially serve as a preview for what could follow just days later.
The Magic, like the Raptors, are a team that has battled with injuries all season long. Most notably, Jonathan Isaac – who was in the midst of a breakout season, asserting himself on the defensive end – suffered a knee injury in January which effectively forced him onto the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
Prior to last year’s series against the Magic, Isaac was pegged as the “Siakam stopper” – if there ever really could be one – since his 6’11 long and athletic frame matched up well with Pascal’s. Still, Spicy P averaged 22.6 points on 53.3% shooting against Isaac in last year’s First Round matchup, although this year as an All-Star, he’s struggled against Isaac, averaging only 17.3 points on 35.7% shooting through three contests.
Pascal’s struggles against the Magic this season have been indicative of Orlando’s team defense. Despite owning the 16th best record in the league, the Magic rank 10th in defensive rating, 1st in opponent points off turnovers, and 1st in opponent second chance points.
These rankings don’t set the Raptors up for any easy buckets given Toronto’s offensive style. The Raptors rank 11th in the league in offensive rating, and 2nd in points off turnovers, despite finishing 26th in second chance points.
The narrative behind the numbers would suggest that Toronto’s best chance at scoring on Orlando is on their first shot, because even if the Raptors were to secure an offensive rebound over Orlando – who ranks top-5 in defensive rebounding percentage – there’s a slim chance that the Raptors would actually score.
Ultimately, this nitty gritty, ‘who can defensively outplay the other team in the halfcourt’ style plays into the Raptors hands. If you want to talk defense with the Raptors, get prepared to take the loss, or get your most ignorant Stephen A. Smith impressions on standby.
In virtually every category defensively, Toronto ranks right at the top of the league, even without the 2013 Defensive Player of The Year, Marc Gasol in the lineup for 28 of the team’s 64 games so far.
The Raptors rank 2nd leaguewide in steals per game, 1st in opponent points per game, 2nd in defensive efficiency, 2nd in opponent shooting percentage, 1st in opponent three-point percentage, 2nd in opponent points in the paint, and the list goes on.
With the emergence of Norman Powell as a reliable third or fourth option on the Raptors, and the Magic shorthanded on the wing without Jonathan Isaac, Toronto shouldn’t find much trouble scoring against Orlando, even with limited possessions and fastbreak opportunities.
On the opposite side of the court, defending Orlando would be like a game of checkers for Nick Nurse. He might even get to experimenting with some schemes that he’d be uncomfortable using in the Second Round, just because the margin between the Raptors defense and Orlando’s offense is so glaringly large.
Through three contests this season, Orlando has yet to score 100 points against Toronto, and is averaging a mere 91.7 per contest.
Toronto leads the league in opponent three point percentage at 33.7%. Orlando is the 5th worst three-point shooting team in the league at 34.0%.
Toronto leads the league in opponent points per game at 106.8. Orlando is the 3rd worst scoring team in the league, averaging only 106.2 points per game.
Toronto ranks 7th in the league in opponent fastbreak points per game, allowing only 12.5. Orlando ranks bottom-10 in the league at scoring on the fastbreak, dropping only 11.8 transition points per game.
In all, while Orlando’s defense might make it harder on the Raptors to score, All-Stars like Siakam and Lowry are still going to find a way to put the ball in the basket. Basketball is a two-way sport, which is unfortunate for Steve Clifford and his squad, who shouldn’t expect to have much fun on offense when the Raptors tighten their defensive screws beyond what they already are, and make it virtually impossible for the Magic to score anything easy.
Overall, this may not be the most exciting playoff series, but Toronto should be favoured to win in five or fewer if they’re matched up against Orlando.
Brooklyn has champions, and superstars on their roster in Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving. Luckily for the Raptors, and frankly, the rest of the league, neither of them are playing for the rest of the season.
Earlier this week, the Brooklyn Nets mutually parted ways with Kenny Atkinson, which some argue was due in part to the hysteria of having to be around Kyrie Irving.
The Nets are 21-22 this season without Irving, as compared to their 8-12 record with him in the lineup, which has some people making valid arguments that the Nets are a better team without him.
As long as Kevin Durant is still a fraction of his pre-injury self though, and he wants Kyrie in Brooklyn, then you’re better off making one of the best players of all-time happy, and dealing with Kyrie’s off-court antics however you can.
Against Brooklyn this season, Toronto is 3-1, with the only loss coming on February 14th right before the All-Star break, which snapped the longest winning streak in Canadian sports history. The season series could easily have been tied at 2-2, if not for OG Anunoby’s stellar defense on Caris LeVert on the final possession of the team’s third meeting just days before the streak ended, on February 8th.
— Planeta NBA (@PlanetaNBA) February 9, 2020
With Caris LeVert heating up over this post-All-Star break stretch, Anunoby’s defense on him might be a critical factor come playoff time.
Over the past seven games, LeVert is averaging 26.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.7 assists, on a 55.4% effective field goal percentage. If those were his season stats, he’d easily be an All-Star, and would be in conversations to make a case as an All-NBA First-Teamer. Accolades aside, if he keeps up this kind of play, he’ll cause trouble for whoever he runs into in The Playoffs.
Through three games against Toronto’s defense this season, LeVert is averaging 29.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes, and is 1-2 in those contests. Additionally, with LeVert in the lineup, the scoring difference between these two teams is marginal, at +3.3 in favour of Toronto.
Luckily for Raptors fans, no matter how incredible of an offensive weapon an opposing player is, they can be taken out of an equation completely by Nick Nurse’s gameplanning. He did it with Stephen Curry in last year’s finals using a box-and-one, he did it with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the conference finals by packing the paint, he did it with Joel Embiid in the conference semi-finals by swarming the post, so he’ll certainly have no issue coming up with a way to stop Caris LeVert.
The problem in this series might arise on the bakcboard. Without Kyrie in the lineup, Brooklyn only becomes a bigger team. Utilizing the likes of Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan in the frontcourt is agonizing for Raptors fans. Currently, Brooklyn ranks 7th in the league in offensive rebounds per game, while defensive rebounding is a department that has been a concern for Toronto all season long. The Raptors rank bottom-10 in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, and the numbers have translated to what’s happened on the court this season.
In Toronto’s only loss to the Nets this year, they lost the battle on the boards by 13. In the three games that Toronto won, they were -8, +5, and +2 on the glass, respectively. Conclusively, the Raptors’ ability to keep Brooklyn’s bigs off the backboard will be imperative to winning games against them. The narrative is amplified by the fact that Brooklyn also ranks 7th in the league in second chance points, and Toronto ranks 6th worst leaguewide in second chance points allowed, meaning that the Nets are efficient at converting offensive rebounds into points, while the Raptors essentially allow teams do just that.
If data says that Brooklyn is going to get free points off their offensive rebounds, and they’re going to pull down a considerable amount of offensive rebounds, that only makes Toronto’s primary defense even more crucial.
All in all, if the Raptors are hoping to repeat as champions, or even make it near The Finals again, their First Round matchup should be nothing of concern. If the Raptors could have their choice, it would probably be to face the Magic, because despite it projecting to be a less exciting series, it would allow Toronto a few extra days off to prepare for the Second Round, given that they could probably wrap up Orlando in a game or two fewer than they could with Brooklyn.
In the end, both series offer their challenges, but neither team’s have close to enough firepower to compete with a healthy Raptors top-7 plus Nick Nurse in a seven game series. If the Raptors are lucky enough to draw Orlando or Brooklyn in the First Round, their playoffs shouldn’t truly begin until Round 2.