Tuesday night the Raptors play Washington and embark on their final 30 games to finish the 2013-14 regular season. En route the Raptors not only have a chance to cement their playoff credentials, but secure a top seed, and win the Atlantic Division for only the second time in franchise history.
The following assessment breaks down the Raptors final 30 games, offers insight into their main division rival and highlights which teams will challenge them for the third seed. As per usual, I invite your feedback and discussion.
Final 30 Raptor Games:
|Atlantic Div||East Conf||West Conf||Home Games||Road Games||Playoff Seeds|
- The Raptors remain one of only three Eastern teams (Indiana and Miami) who have a .500 or better road record.
- Raptors have the best inter-division Atlantic record at 8-2 with 6 contests remaining.
- Raptors have only 13 road games remaining, 8 vs. the West and 12 vs. current playoff seeds.
Closest Atlantic Division Rival: Brooklyn Nets:
|Atlantic||vs Raptors||East||West||Home||Road||Playoff Seeds|
- Brooklyn has been abysmal on the road winning only 8 of their 24 games (33%) and have a further 17 slated to finish their schedule.
- The Nets have not fared well in the second game of back-to-backs winning just 18%
- The Nets have a winning record in their division (6-4) however since the Raptors have already taken 2 of their 3 games the only way Brooklyn can usurp them would be to either win the division outright or tie them as well as win more divisional games by season’s end.
The odds of the Raptors winning the Atlantic Division increased once they entered the break given the easier schedule remaining. Although some Eastern teams have righted the ship they remain the sub par conference and Toronto will benefit from facing them 19 times. Since the trade the Raptors have been winning games at a 65% clip, many of which came against tough Western opponents and on the road, so extrapolating the same win percentage against an easier schedule would equal a further 20 victories for a total of 48 wins.
While Brooklyn also faces a relatively easy schedule, two factors greatly decrease their chances of catching Toronto: their remaining 17 road and 8 back-to-back games. The second night of their 8 back-to-backs specifically pose a huge problem for the Nets given 7 of 8 will be played on the road with the only home game featuring Toronto, but it will mark the Nets fifth game in eight nights. Given their current averages I estimate the Nets will only win 1 of those 8 back to back games (which isn’t a stretch given they have only won 2 of 11 so far) and 4 of the other 10 road games. If these averages hold true even if the Nets go unbeaten in their 14 home games it would only bring them 43 wins, well short of what they’ll need to surpass Toronto.
Comparing Raptors to Closest Competition To Get Third Seed: Chicago, Washington and Atlanta:
|Team||vs Raptors||East||West||Home||Road||Playoff Seeds|
In review of the teams who are directly behind Toronto vying for the third and fourth home playoff seeds Atlanta has been the team jostling with Toronto all season for third place but is least likely to be their greatest competition. Of the challengers, the Hawks face the most current playoff seeds in their final 31 games, play 18 contests on the road and have nine back-to-back contests remaining.
Charles Barkley anointed Washington as the third seed and Kenny Smith guaranteed Brooklyn would claim the spot, but I feel the Bulls are the team who’ll provide the greatest competition because of their cohesiveness, defense and experience. Perhaps the better question to examine would be which team do you not want to face in the first round, but I’ll leave that for another article. Suffice to say keep your eye on The Bulls and The Wizards as we progress through the February 20th, trade deadline and lets see where these teams are mid March.
Toronto ranks 12th in offense and 7th in defense with a +3.0 Net Rating for 10th overall (as of Feb 10th)
Score: 14th (with a glut of Eastern Games on tap this number should climb)
Field Goal %: 22nd (Prior to the trade Raps sat in 29th so they’ve improved but its still an area requiring improvement)
Free Throws: 9th
3 Point Shots Per Game: 8th (incredible given how they started the season)
Offensive Rebounds: 7th
Assists: 18th (Huge improvement from 29th since trade)
4th Q Point Differential: 1st ( Raps have steadily climbed up ranks to their current top position; if Casey can ever get a full 48 min effort imagine the possibilities)
Points by Opponent: 4th
Field Goal %: 8th
3 Pointers: 11th
While the focus has been on the easier schedule, perhaps the key factor worth noting is their 17 home games resulting in long stretches where the team will not be travelling much in March and April. Following the Cleveland game February 25, the Raptors return home for 11 days with only 3 games on tap. This period will offer Coach Casey ample opportunity to tweak the Raptors defense with specific emphasis on defending the paint and address the on-going need for a 48-minute efforts.
To that end, I anticipate fans can expect to see a defensive commitment following the break. Specifically because the man who arguably makes Valanciunas and the entire core better will be returning from 11 days of much needed rest. Although Patterson filled in admirably, the team truly operates at a higher level when Johnson is manning the paint. Johnson’s healthy return coupled with easier opponents should allow for the Raptors to build on early successes and fine tune areas where the Raptors will need to excel come April.
An area I’d like to see Casey and his assistants work on is empowering Valanciunas to shoot; at the beginning of the season he confidently would hit 8 to 14 foot shots without hesitation but recently he’s not only shied away from taking those shots, but he no longer is going up strong in the paint on certain close-range shots right under the basket. The myriad of basement teams they’ll face in the final 30 games could prove to be the medicine he needs to regain that confidence. Perhaps this time will also allow both Lowry and Vasquez to fine tune some pick-and-roll plays with him and the rest of the front court, something Valanciunas thrives in
Finally, my last article focused on trades the Raptors should look to make prior to the deadline to prepare for the post season and coincidentally the pieces I suggested to dangle (Novak and Hansbrough) received additional playing time in the past two weeks which confirmed my belief these two players are the pieces the franchise will shop. I suggested we needed to add a back-up center and a third point guard with veteran experience for late-game scenarios. In recent games the broadcast team indicated they saw the power forward position as needing additional depth. Nevertheless the majority of people who responded to the article and media analysts on a whole seem to be in agreement the Raptors chemistry is perhaps the best in the East. Whether we add or lose a player or two, these final 30 games should increase that bond.
Bottom line: barring injuries I’m calling the Atlantic Division title for the Raptors today and predict this squad will in fact set a record for wins in a season. As I’ve mentioned previously the one thing money can’t buy is chemistry, so moving forward I’m eager to watch the final 30 games with an eye on how high the ceiling is for these 15 players heading into our first post season play in six years.
Tipping off to another exciting week of Raptors basketball, follow me on Twitter @TTOTambz