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What to keep an eye on over the season’s final 3 days

The Toronto Raptors have been locked into the two-seed in the Eastern Conference for what feels like forever now. They’ve had little to play for in a tangible sense, and their focus has shifted to keeping everyone fresh and in game shape, working DeMarre Carroll back into the fold, and pushing their franchise-record win total of 54 even higher.

There remains an outside chance they can grab the top seed in the conference, but it would require Cleveland to drop both of their games this week (Mon vs. Atl, Wed vs. Det). Both of those opponents have something to play for, as we’ll see shortly, so it’s certainly possible, especially since Cleveland may opt to get their key players some rest. The Raptors will be doing the same and have a back-to-back situation, but they’re also playing what may be the two worst teams in the NBA right now, and the Raptors own the tiebreaker against Cleveland after winning the season series 2-1.

There’s no downside left for the Raptors beyond fatigue or injury, and they’ve shown over the last few weeks they’ll approach things intelligently. Get Carroll some more work, sit Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan a game, maybe, and make sure the minutiae of the gameplan is sharp. Other than that, most of what will impact the Raptors this week is happening away from actual Toronto basketball, as the Raptors should be expected to take care of Philly and Brooklyn even with players resting. They’ve done more than expected to control their own fate, now it’s a matter of staying ready until Saturday or Sunday.

CLE: Mon vs. Atl, Wed vs. Det
TOR: Tues vs. Phi, Wed @ Brk

Here’s a quick look at what else is going on that could impact Toronto.

First-round opponent
The Raptors know they’ll play either the Indiana Pacers or the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference’s 2-7 matchup. Which opponent they’ll draw is still unclear, though it looks slightly more likely it will be the Pacers.

Through Sunday’s games, the Pacers and Pistons are even at 43-37 with two games each to play. Detroit draws Miami, who need to win (more in a second), and Cleveland, who will probably be in the same mode the Raptors are this week. The Pacers, meanwhile, have the Knicks and the Bucks in a pretty easy back-to-back.

DET: Tues vs. Mia, Wed @ Cle
IND: Tues vs. NYK, Wed @ Mil

The Pacers also own the tiebreaker over the Pistons, so along with having an easier schedule, they’ll get the seven-seed in the event of a tie.

Raptors get Pacers if: Pacers 2-0, Pacers 1-1 and Pistons 1-1 or 0-2, both teams 0-2
Raptors get Pistons if: Pistons 2-0 and Pacers 1-1, Pistons 1-1 and Pacers 0-2

It’s also worth noting that both teams play a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back with a road game on Wednesday, like the Raptors, so there will be no obvious rest advantage on either side in round one. (I’d also argue that’s a reason the Raptors should draw the Sunday matchup instead of Saturday for Game 1, but a lot goes into those decisions.)

I’d be surprised if the Raptors have a strong preference either way here. They went 18-7 against all Easy playoff teams, better than any other team in the conference, and they won the season series 3-1 against both Detroit and Indiana. On paper, each opponent would present some challenges, but nothing the Raptors shouldn’t be able to handle – if Toronto shows up and plays as they have, they’d probably be favored to win in five or six games.

For what it’s worth, as of Saturday, the Raptors had a 79.3-percent chance of drawing Indiana, per BPI, and the chances would only be greater now that the Pacers won Sunday.

Potential second-round opponent
The Raptors shouldn’t be looking ahead to the second round by any means, but there’s been plenty of talk in the comments and our mentions about who a preferred second-round draw would be. My answer? Anyone! That would mean the Raptors are in the second round.

More realistically, I think the Raptors would prefer Charlotte, Boston, Atlanta, and Miami, in that order, but who they could stand opposite from in round two is anyone’s guess. The 3-6 Mafia in the East remains incredibly tight and likely won’t be decided until the final night of the season. Note that each of these teams would like home-court advantage, but if Atlanta and Miami were speaking honestly, I’d bet they’d prefer the six-seed to the four or five, avoiding Cleveland in round two. Here’s how they shake up entering the week.

ATL: 48-32, 3rd, Mon @ Cle, Wed @ Was
BOS: 47-33, 4th, 1GB 3rd, Mon vs. Cha, Wed vs. Mia
MIA: 47-33, 5th, 1GB 3rd, Tues @ Det, Wed @ Bos
CHA: 46-34, 6th, 2GB 3rd, Mon @ Bos, Wed vs. Orl

Miami has the toughest draw with back-to-back road games against teams with something to play for, and Boston is in the most control of their own fate up against two teams in this group. Mia-Bos could be a pivotal game on the season’s final night.

The tiebreakers are a bit of a mess, but let’s try to sort it out.

ATL: Tiebreaker vs. Bos, Cha
BOS: Tiebreaker vs. Mia, Cha
MIA: Tiebreaker vs. Atl, would win 3-way tie with Atl & Bos (per Matt Moore)
CHA: No tiebreakers but could get tiebreaker vs. Mia

Again, the Raptors would be in decent shape regardless here, with home-court advantage and the edge in season series against each team (3-1 Atl, 3-1 Bos, 3-1 Mia, 2-1 Cha). In theory, the 3-6 matchup should be pegged for six or seven games, so the Raptors could also be slightly more rested.

But this is getting ahead of things. It’s a note of interest but not something people should stress or get excited about. I mean, do you, but the Raptors have to win a first-round series first.

The Knicks-Nuggets pick
As a reminder, the Raptors will get the lesser (worse) of the Knicks or Nuggets first-round picks, following the lottery. The Nuggets get first dibs between the two picks after ping-pong balls are drawn, and the Raptors get the other. Mostly, the Raptors benefit from the Nuggets’ ineptitude, not the Knicks, but there are low-probability scenarios where it’s best for the Raptors if both the Knicks and Nuggets do poorly.

Here’s a matrix of where the Raptors’ pick could land, given each potential landing spot for the Knicks and Nuggets (their order doesn’t matter).

where pick

That second column shows the odds the Raptors would have of landing the No. 2 pick with each finish outcome, too. They’re incredibly slim in any case, but if the Knicks and Nuggets were to finish seventh and ninth in the reverse standings, where they currently are, then the Raptors would have what amounts to a 1-in-664 chance (0.1507%) at the No. 2 pick. (I could calculate the odds of landing in each spot, and I might still, but it’s a rather vast conditional probability matrix and I’m not sure it’s worth the time – the Raptors will be most likely to pick wherever the “better” of the two teams finishes.)

The Knicks and Nuggets are locked into the 6-to-11 range for lottery odds, as the bottom five teams have separated themselves enough. It’s also worth noting that there’s no tiebreaker for the lottery – if two teams tie, they simply split the lottery odds for those two positions, with a coin flip determining the one extra ping-pong ball if it’s an odd number.

6. New Orleans, 30-50, Mon vs. Chi, Wed @ Min
7. New York, 32-49, Tue @ Ind
8. Sacramento, 32-48, Mon @ Phx, Wed @ Hou
9. Denver, 33-48, Wed @ Por
10. Milwaukee, 33-47, Mon @ Orl, Wed vs. Ind
11. Orlando, 34-46, Mon vs. Mil, Wed @ Cha

It’s tough to figure who may win and lose with so many teams packing it in, but note that Indiana, Houston, Portland, and Charlotte all have something to play for, so those should be losses for the teams above. Best guess here is that the Knicks finish with the 7th-best odds and the Nuggets finish ninth, if only because I’m kind of assuming everyone loses out (except Milwaukee) and things stay as-is. The Knicks could tie New Orleans though – Chicago will have packed it in with their season over, and that Wednesday game with Minnesota could be a mega-tankfest.

So, yeah, it looks like the Raptors will be getting a top-10 pick unless they catch a bad break this week or on lottery night. Whether they keep it and who they target are discussions for another time.

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