81 down and 1 to go. And unlike most seasons, there’s actually a lot riding on this game.
After the loss against Boston last night, the Raptors are stuck at a franchise record-tying 48 wins, so another win will break the franchise record. That’s nice, but what’s more important is that this last game could decide who the Raptors will play in the first round, and who they would play in the second round if they make it that far.
A win tonight, coupled with a loss by the Bulls (who are playing the Hawks), will guarantee a first round series against the Bucks, who currently have the third rated defense in the league and might be a tough first round opponent for the Raptors. They beat Toronto once in three games this season and have the type of roster that could cause the Raptors trouble. Their roster is full of long, athletic players who can play multiple positions, something the Raptors often have difficulty with. Plus, they’re coached by Jason Kidd, who was the coach of the Nets, last year, when they beat the Raptors in seven games.
If the Raptors are able to get past Milwaukee, they would have to face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team most experts pick to make it out of the East.
On the other hand, a loss tonight (or a win by the Bulls) will result in a fourth seed and a first round matchup against the Washington Wizards, who are just a couple of games behind the Raptors in the standings. The Raptors only played one game against a healthy Wizards starting lineup and they barely escaped in a four point overtime win.
John Wall is the type of guard that drives the Raptors’ defense nuts and while Paul Pierce’s best days may be behind him, he’s known to raise his game during the playoffs and has more playoff experience than the entire Raptors’ roster combined. In fact, he has more than twice as much experience than the entire Raptors roster combined.
And, they have the league’s fifth rated defense.
While the Raptors won all three games they played against Washington, the Wizards are probably the worst case scenario as possible Raptor first round opponents.
Atlanta may be a more attractive second round opponent, despite their record, because they don’t have a LeBron James, but getting to the second round may be tougher against Washington than Milwaukee.
The biggest thing in the Raptors’ favour in a series against Washington is that Randy Whitman is somehow still their coach, and he may be one of the few coaches in the league Raptor fans would want less than Dwane Casey.
So a win tonight would not only break the franchise record for wins, but also go a long way to ensuring a slightly easier first round opponent, so long as Chicago plays along by losing.
On the surface, Charlotte has absolutely nothing to play for. A win or loss will do absolutely nothing either for the playoffs (since they were officially out of the playoffs last week) or the lottery (no team is close enough in wins to make a difference), but teams with nothing to lose and the ability to play the spoiler can often cause trouble for teams like the Raptors at the end of a long season.
Charlotte has won two of three against the Raptors this season and have won thirteen of their last sixteen against Toronto. For some reason, the Raptors have struggled against Charlotte. In fact, you have to go back to the 2009-2010 season to find a season in which the Raptors are above .500 against the Hornets, or the Bobcats, as they were called then.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
Will Charlotte Care?
After a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs after a surprise playoff appearance last year, it would be easy to see many of the Hornet players wanting to have the season over and start the summer. That said, without a playoff appearance, ending the season with a win might be the only motivation they need.
With them owning the Raptors the last few years, Charlotte players should be confident any time they face Toronto.
Of course, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won’t suit up and neither will Lance Stephenson. Plus, Raptor-killer Al Jefferson is questionable.
In the last game of the season, it’s either a chance for some of the deeper bench guys to play, or for Casey to shorten the bench in preparation for the playoffs. With the game actually having some meaning, it’s difficult to see Casey deciding tonight is the best chance for Bruno to get extended playing time. Of course, the last thing you want to see is for a starter to get hurt in the last game.
DeRozan was held out of last night’s game, but I’m guessing Casey won’t let him sit for the home crowd.
Where Is Lowry?
Lowry is not the player we saw in December. I think it’s obvious that was an aberration, much like Russell Westbrook’s near triple-double month and Jeremy Lin’s Linsanity tour. But he’s also better than he’s shown since the All Star break, where’s he’s shooting a horrible .368 from the field and hasn’t exactly improved his defensive reputation.
For the Raptors to have any success in the playoffs, Lowry needs to play well and he needs to start with a good game tonight to boost his confidence.
It all depends on who’s playing. If Casey sits DeRozan as well as Lowry (doubtful), and Jefferson plays for the Hornets, then Charlotte actually might have the better starting lineup. If Lowry and DeRozan play, then the Raptors have the better starting lineup, whether or not Jefferson suits up.
Edge: Raptors (I’m guessing both Lowry and DeRozan play)
No matter what, Charlotte will be missing at least one starter (possibly two, if you count Cody Zeller, who started 45 games this year) and their top bench player. And they didn’t have much depth to begin with.
I’m not sure what the odds of Casey returning are, but I’m guessing they are not good. He’s been outcoached more than he’s outcoached, this season, and I’d hate to know what his Quick Reaction grade average is over the entire season.
Steve Clifford is no Gregg Popovich or even Brad Stevens, but he’s a decent coach who is in a similar situation as Casey. Both coaches surprised the league by coaching their teams to playoff appearances last year but followed it up with disappointing seasons. Charlotte’s was obviously more disappointing, but they were also ravaged by injuries and the fact that they passed over Elfrid Payton for Noah Vonleh.
A team with the confidence Charlotte has against the Raptors, on the last game of the season, with nothing to lose should worry Toronto. Their heartbreaking loss against Boston last night might motivate them, but trying to guess which Raptor team is going to show up lately has been impossible.
With Charlotte’s dominance over the Raptors, since 2010, anyone thinking the Raptors will run away with this one is overly optimistic.
Score: Charlotte 95 – Raptors 89 (Assuming Al Jefferson plays)