The Toronto Raptors have clinched a playoff berth.
With a loss to the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls have done the Raptors a rare favor and effectively punched their ticket. Toronto needed to win, or for either Detroit or Chicago to lose, in order to clinch a spot, and Chicago obliged. The Raptors, meanwhile, lost a tough one to Boston without Kyle Lowry, and the Pistons rolled the Magic. The Bulls, though, they played ball for Toronto…kind of. They lost, sure, but they lost to the Knicks, which has a small impact on Toronto’s draft prospects (in certain lottery scenarios – the Raptors care more about Denver losing). Nothing’s ever easy with Chicago.
In any case, the Raptors are now 12 games up on the ninth seed with only 12 to go (the Bulls have 12, too, but the NBA has assured that the Raptors clinch based on rest-of-season scenarios).
It’s quite remarkable, really, that the Raptors find themselves at 48-22 despite medium-term injuries to Jonas Valanciunas and next to no contribution from DeMarre Carroll. Even last week, they played five games in seven days, were without Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, and James Johnson for part of that stretch, while getting DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph each a night off to rest, and still managed to go 4-1, extending their current hot stretch to 7-1. The ability to balance injuries, rest, and success game-to-game certainly leaves room for optimism as to how this team may look when fully healthy (if fully healthy) come mid-April.
The hot stretch has also helped the Raptors edge to just 2.5 games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland won on Wednesday, and they’re now down to 11 games remaining, five at home and six on the road. The Raptors, meanwhile, have seven more away from home and five at the Air Canada Centre, a slightly tougher stretch with which to close the gap. Both sides would probably like to get key players some additional rest over the season’s final weeks, and the Raptors also have to work Carroll back into the fold. With the gap now 2.5 games, I can’t imagine it’s much of a priority when compared to getting to the playoffs healthy.
It’s unclear, anyway, if the top seed would be all that beneficial to Toronto, at least if it comes at the cost of taxing key players. Home-court advantage in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Cleveland would be great, but the Raptors need to get there first – priorities No. 1, 2, 3, and so on are reaching the first round while peaking.
Who the Raptors may meet when they get there is as murky as what seed they might land. Indiana, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington are all within 2.5 games of each other, fighting seeds seven-to-ten. Whether the Raptors land first or second, there’s no telling one spot would provide a better matchup than the other. If you’re of the mind that avoiding Chicago is paramount, for example, figuring out whether to land one or two is impossible this far out. (Personally, I find the idea of jockeying for a specific opponent unpredictable, dangerous, and borderline impossible with how close the race for Nos. 1 and 7 are, but I’m in the minority, I sense.)
Wherever they land, the Raptors are landing in the playoffs for a third year in a row. It’s just the second time in franchise history that the Raptors have made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, and the Raptors are but a single win from tying last season’s franchise record of 49 wins. This will, without question, be the best regular season in Raptors history, and the last three years represent the strongest regular-season era the franchise has ever experienced. That won’t matter much if the Raptors can’t win a seven-game series for the first time ever in a month or so, but it’s pretty cool in the meantime.