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Look how far we’ve come with the finish line in sight

Clinching the top spot in the conference is just the first step.

We’ve been without NBA basketball for a few days now as the all-star break winds down, which happened to put me in quite the reflective mood pertaining to the Toronto Raptors. Maybe it’s because the part of my brain reserved for NBA basketball has been depressingly empty. Or it could just be I’m the sentimental type. Whatever the reason, I think it’s fairly fitting to reflect on how far this organization has come, not just recently, but over the past two-plus decades.

For the majority of the organization’s existence – spanning across two-plus decades – the Toronto Raptors on-court product was lackluster to put it kindly. This is a team that featured the likes of Rasho Nesterovic, Rafael Araujo, and Charlie Villanueva in its starting lineups, and unsurprisingly cruised to underwhelming regular season records year-in and year-out. Over the franchise’s 23-year history, 13 seasons ended with sub-.500 records. Sure, playoff spots were clinched here and there, but typically Raptors players started their lengthy vacations by the time April rolled around.

Who else feels like those days are in the rear-view mirror?

When the Raptors clinch their spot in the 2018 playoffs, it will mark the franchise’s fifth-straight postseason berth. Barring a catastrophic collapse, Toronto will also reach the 50-win plateau for the third time in franchise history. Oh, how the times have changed.

Making the playoffs has become the norm in recent years for the Raptors. In fact, if Toronto were to bow out of the first or second round of the postseason nowadays, it’d be treated as a gigantic letdown, and rightfully so. Considering where this franchise used to rank in the NBA’s power hierarchy, having expectations as high as these is, in itself, an accomplishment.

Speaking of accomplishments, I think it’s worth noting the Raptors are finally garnering serious attention down south from American media outlets. It’s about time, quite frankly, considering this Raptors team is pegged by many to finish the season with the East’s number one seed. There are still 25 games to be played, but even so, the Raptors have shown no signs of slowing down; instead, they’ve improved as the season has progressed. With that being said, here are some of the goals the Raptors should strive to achieve during the stretch run of the campaign.

Clinch the number-one seed

The Raptors currently hold a two-game cushion over the Boston Celtics for first in the East with two games in hand over their Atlantic Division rivals. After a game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, five of Toronto’s next six opponents have records below .500. That presents the team with a great opportunity to extend its first-place lead in the conference. The Raps will need to take care of business over that span, especially with four more games against Boston and Cleveland still to come on the schedule.

Reach the 60-win plateau

Given the Raptors winning percentage of 71.9, the team is currently on pace for 59 wins. However, according to our trusted friends at fivethirtyeight.com, the Raptors have a projected record of 60-22 as of Wednesday, February 21. If Toronto hopes to reach the 60-win mark for the first time in franchise history, the team will have to finish 19-6 in its last 25 games, which means they’d have to increase their winning percentage to 76 percent over their remaining games. Toronto faces 13 teams above .500 over the remainder of its schedule, with seven of those games at Air Canada Centre. Considering the Raptors have only lost four times all season on their home court, 60 wins is very much in the realm of possibility.

NBA Finals berth

Clinching the top spot in the conference is just the first step for Toronto in what the team hopes is a lengthy and successful playoff run. The Eastern Conference is more wide-open than it has been in years, with the new-look Cavaliers still trying to find their rhythm down the stretch and the Celtics faltering after their hot start to the season. Excluding those two teams, the Raptors don’t really have any intimidating competition on their path to a potential Finals berth. Still, lots can change between now and the postseason, especially when it comes to the Cavaliers status as a title contender. FiveThirtyEight currently ranks the Raptors as the most likely team in the league to reach the Finals with a 51 percent chance. We’ll see how that number holds up as we get closer to June.

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