Looking Ahead to the Raptors in the Postseason

With an unexpected postsesaon berth on the horizon, it’s time to look ahead at what awaits an inexperienced Playoff club after April 16th.

At this point, it is basically a foregone conclusion that the Toronto Raptors are making the postseason. It would take an epic collapse to fall out of the Playoffs in a conference where a 26-35 record currently has Atlanta clinging to the eighth seed. Even for an organization that took a best-ever team record into the All-Star break in 2010 and still managed to screw up a postseason berth, falling out now would be borderline impossible. It won’t happen.

That means that, with just over a month to go until the Playoffs roll around, it’s time to start looking ahead to what’s in store for the Raptors after April 16th.

(As an aside, it still feels peculiar to be talking about the Raptors and the Playoffs this season. Heck, there is a chance that in this season, when they were supposedly looking to tank for Andrew Wiggins, they might wind up with their best record in franchise history! And that’s after trading away their most recognizable player. Okay, aside over.)

As well as they’ve played this season, though, the Playoffs are a different beast. Rotations tighten, intensity ratchets up and experience matters. Despite owning the third-best record in the East, there are some matchups that simply won’t benefit Toronto should the final standings not tilt in their favour.

Chicago demonstrated why back on February 19th. While the game was only a two-point loss, Chicago owned Toronto both physically and mentally all game long. They played at a level of intensity that Toronto looked unable to match over the course of an entire game. Chicago wants to own their opponents. They may not always win, but they will push you to the brink when they are on their game. While the two teams split the season series, the Chicago that Toronto saw on the 19th is the Chicago that Tom Thibodeau will be taking to the Playoffs, and they play the kind of basketball that grizzled Playoff veterans play when they do battle in seven-game series’. They are also exactly the kind of club that would feast on an inexperienced club like the Raptors in April.

That’s why if you’re the Raptors (or, rather, if you’re a Raptors fan), you’re probably hoping to avoid a first-round date with Chicago or Brooklyn when the Playoffs roll around next month. These are teams loaded with players who understand how the game changes in the postseason. They know how the games get more physical. How the games are called differently by the refs. They understand the pressure, both from within the team and without, and they know how to prey on inexperience, even if they couldn’t or didn’t do it during the regular season.

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Raptors fans have witnessed this first hand. Back in 2007, the last time the club unexpectedly won the Atlantic Division, they were surgically picked apart by a veteran Nets squad led by Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. It wasn’t that the Nets were more talented, but they understood how to exploit the Raptors in the postseason. They amped up the physicality against Chris Bosh, which he didn’t know how to deal with (he shot .396 from the field in that series), they packed the paint and dared the Raptors to beat them from outside, knowing that they’ll get burned occasionally but trusting that they’ll win-out in the end (which they did), and they simply forced the game to be played at their pace, on their terms, and won it in six.

This isn’t a conversation about a young club getting dominated by a veteran squad in the postseason, though. Despite the staggering lack of Playoff experience on the Raptors (most of their main rotation has never played a meaningful minute in the Playoffs, and most of those that have possess only marginal experience), this is about veteran clubs understanding how to play a seven-game series. That Nets series seven years ago saw New Jersey win two nail-biters in Toronto, but they walloped the Raptors when the games were played in the Meadowlands. They exploited their little advantages to eke out a series win, because veteran teams understand the nuances of Playoff basketball in a way that young, inexperienced teams don’t.

If things shake out well for the Raptors, though, and they can land Charlotte or Washington in round one, things could work a lot more favourably for them. Neither squad has much to offer in terms of Playoff experience, and over the course of a seven-game series a healthy Raptors squad should be able to out-execute their opposition, or at least put themselves in a position to advance to round two for the first time since 2001. While both of those squads feature players that Toronto would have a hard time matching up with one-on-one (Al Jefferson and John Wall, respectively), on a team-to-team level the Raptors probably come out ahead.

The question is whether or not any of this means anything to the people tasked with running this Raptors squad. In a lot of ways the organization is playing with house money right now. The club has wildly outperformed expectations. Several players are having career-years out of nowhere. It would be easy for the team to say that any postseason experience is valuable, and that win or lose they will just be whetting the roster’s appetite for more in the future. After all, Dwane Casey has said repeatedly all season long that this year is as much about development as a postseason berth. While Thibodeau had his club grinding at a Playoff intensity in February, Casey may be more inclined to allow his team to play like they’ve been playing all season long, let the Playoffs arrive and let the chips fall where they may. Whereas most coaches might start experimenting with lineups, rotations and schemes that they will break out in full-force in the postseason, Casey may well keep working to get his young guys experience and his largish rotation playing time. That strategy may not exactly tune the team up for what Playoff basketball is like, but it maintains this season’s developmental goals and doesn’t over-invest in the meaning of this year’s surprise Playoff appearance.

In fact, that’s probably the biggest fear Raptors fans carry into this year’s postseason. It isn’t about whether or not the Raptors will acquit themselves admirably or not, it’s how deeply the club in investing in this season-long Cinderella story. Back in 2007, after the Nets dispatched the Raptors in round one, management doubled-down on a flawed roster, intoxicated by their unexpected success, and failed to build on their achievements as a result. The team got worse in each of the next two years because they never acknowledged how far away they were from contention despite their gaudy finish in the standings in ’07. Fans wouldn’t even be blamed for secretly hoping that the Raptors go down in round one to a more experienced club this year because it would send a message to management that this team ins’t ready, that it isn’t close and that more foundational work needs to be done before anyone should be satisfied with the makeup of the roster.

Whatever happens once the Playoffs are done, that the Raptors are almost assuredly going is still the real story here. The next month will be a fascinating one to watch, as we’ll get to see not only how the ever-shifting matchup situation plays out (if they Playoffs were to start today the third-seed Raptors would take on the sixth-seed Nets) but also how coach Casey chooses to tinker with his approach heading into the postseason – if at all. It was the Playoff berth that was never meant to happen, so how the organization chooses to approach it remains one of last intriguing story lines left to play out this season.

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