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The home stretch awaits

It’s all fun and games tonight in la la land, but an important road lies ahead for the Raptors

As we sit back and prepare for the all-star game tonight in Los Angeles, appreciating how special this season has been for the Toronto Raptors and their fanbase is really important. It’s pretty fantastic to have 2 all-stars and a coach representing your team in the all-star game. And to top if all off, the Raptors sit atop the Eastern Conference, 2 games up on the pesky Boston Celtics, who up until just days ago, were holding a firm grip on the first seed all season long. And, despite what some might believe watching Lowry’s underwhelming performance once again in last night’s 3-point contest , the Raptors have an all-star backcourt that’s pretty tough to stop.

But as they say…the regular season can be a hell of a drug. Hence, it’s important to view all of this success through a lens – one that anticipates what the future holds. The entire Eastern Conference will be coming for the Raptors…and while it’ll probably be all smiles and good times tonight … DeMar, Kyle and Coach Casey all know that a true dog fight is coming; a fight for supremacy in a conference that finally seems wide open for the taking. With targets expected to be on their back every night, the Raptors are sure to come into every game getting every team’s best shot.

The all-star backcourt has taken a slightly smaller role in the offense this season, and the past 10 games have been the greatest examples of this. They’ve averaged just over 31 and 28 minutes over this stretch, contributing 19.5 points and 16.5 points respectively. Those are obviously decent numbers, but it’s clear that the Raptors are not relying on their star backcourt as much as even earlier this season. Notwithstanding the lower usage of their all-stars, thanks to what has seemed like a world-beating supporting cast, the Raptors have gone 9-1 during these 10 games, including an ongoing 7-game winning streak that has catapulted them all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Securing the number one seed should be Toronto’s first priority, not only because it provides home court advantage throughout the conference playoffs, but also because it likely helps Toronto avoid playing the Cleveland until at least the conference finals. And home court doesn’t exactly hurt either – especially for the Raps, who have lost only games 4 at home all season (their home record continues to be tops in the league). They’ve beaten the Cavs and Celtics handily at home already this season, and play the Warriors close every time. Not to mention, as a team that’s relying more on complementary and bench pieces, it’s even more important to capitalize playing at home in the playoffs, where these kinds of players generally tend to excel.

At this time last year, Toronto was trying to incorporate newly acquired Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker into the mix, and with Kyle Lowry’s injury just after the all-star break, the ensuing home stretch break turned into a giant guessing game. The Raptors withstood Lowry’s absence somewhat sufficiently, but bringing him back into the mix late in the season was less than ideal. This year, on the other hand, thanks to a load balanced roster that has relied on a number of guards all year, the Raptors are hoping to have a rested Kyle Lowry prepped and ready for a deep playoff run. They stayed quiet at the deadline and are banking on continuity and organic growth as their calling card.

The Raptors second priority should be to refine their crunch time execution, which continue to be a work in progress. While we’ve seen improvements in some areas throughout this 7 game winning streak, how the Raptors handle traps and physical defenses in these late game situations will be something to keep an eye on. Take the Miami Heat game from Tuesday night for instance – Toronto finally looked to be pulling away after a strong second half performance, but a physical Miami defense stifled the Raptor attack down the stretch. The Raps shot an abysmal 23% in the final frame to barely hang on for a win. A similar situation played out against Utah and the first home game against Miami – but those included a few more miscues defensively as well, which led to losses in both of those games. Getting as many crunch time reps in the regular season against playoff-worthy opponents will be important, even if that means a loss or two here or there.

But to poke a hole in this team’s performance thus far this season would be nitpicking to the say the least. In addition to their 59 win pace at the moment, the Raptors continue to boast a top-5 offense and defense, something only the Warriors can also say, and are beating up on teams with an average +8.5 point differential (again, only second to the Warriors). Say what you want about the playoffs being different or the Raptors’ past playoff struggles; those are just stats that can’t be ignored. Maybe what we should be saying is how amazing it is that they consistently get to the playoffs … and that now, they appear to be even better.

Here’s a brief look at the rest of the regular season:

  • Current win pace: 59 wins (0.719%)
  • Total games remaining: 25
  • Home games remaining: 13
  • Road games remaining: 12
  • Back-to-backs left: 4
  • Longest road trip left: 3 games (NYK, BKN, IND – Mar 11 – 15th)
  • Longest home stand left: 3 games (BKN, LAC, DEN – Mar 23 – Mar 27 and BOS, IND, ORL – Apr 4 – 8)
  • Key games:
    • vs. HOU – Mar 9th, 7:30 pm
    • vs. OKC – Mar 18th, 1:00pm
    • @ CLE – Mar 21st, 7:00 pm
    • @ BOS – Mar 31st, 7:00 pm
    • @ CLE – Apr 3rd, 7:00 pm
    • vs. BOS – Apr 4th, 7:00 pm

If the Raptors can take care of Boston at least once in their remaining two contests against them, it puts them in an excellent spot to secure the first seed since the Celtics will then likely have to win at least 3 more games than the Raptors coming down the stretch, and with 2 less games in hand. In addition to games against the Rockets and Thunder, two road games against a re-tooled Cavaliers roster will also serve as critical litmus tests for this Raptors team that has to show it can win on the road against the best in the Eastern Conference. And right now, LBJ’s squad in Cleveland is looking pretty damn good. The narrative across many media outlets has reverted to the Cavs being a lock to come out of the east, but beating Cleveland at least once on their home floor may just give the Raptors the confidence they need going into a playoff series.

While the coaching staff and players won’t admit to standings watching throughout the season, if the number one seed starts to take shape as the season winds down, staring down at that eighth spot will become more and more tempting. The second tier in the Eastern conference right now is separated by just 3.5 games, from Washington in the fourth spot to Miami down in the eighth spot. And while facing the eighth seed should theoretically be the most favourable, matchups against Philly, Miami or Milwaukee could all practically be incredibly difficult. Interestingly enough, the Raptors play the Heat on the last game of the season, and could very well factor into that final decision. Just one of the many things we’ll be watching as the regular season winds down.

So, when we’re watching Kyle and DeMar do their thing tonight … remember that it’s pretty special to be a Raptors fan right now. Once again at the unofficial halfway point of the season, we’re able to celebrate our 2 all-stars who have given this franchise the most success it has ever seen. While it’s time to enjoy the moment for the Raptors and take it all in, it’s also hard to forget that an incredibly critical home stretch awaits.

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