3 burning questions about the Raptors’ stretch run

It’s all to play for in the fourth quarter of the regular season.

To the fourth quarter we go… of the 2017-18 regular season. Every game does genuinely matter, whether it’s for home court advantage, sneaking into the postseason, or racking up more ping pong balls. There are 20-ish games remaining, the Toronto Raptors are first in the Eastern Conference, but the Boston Celtics are hot on their trail after seemingly having taken the all-star break to regenerate their lost offensive cells.

Beyond that, the battle through the lower half of the conference means the Raptors could face any of the Heat, Pacers, Sixers, Bucks, or even the Wizards depending on how things shake out over the course of this final month-and-a-half.

With all that in mind, I thought it’d be a good time to consider three burning questions as we head into this final stretch.

Will the Raptors finish No.1 in the East?

Toronto: 43-17 (25-5 at home, 18-12 on the road). Back-to-backs remaining (B2B): 4.

The top seed will likely play a huge role in determining how legitimate a shot they have at reaching the NBA Finals, as guaranteed home court through the East playoffs would add a bit of swagger to their step.

Can they earn it?

The Raptors play half of their final 22 games against teams over .500 (18-15 record), beginning Friday night in Washington. They have an even home and away split as well. Their standard of play over the first 60 games should maintain itself, but all eyes will be on the three-game stretch between the end of March and the beginning of April when a visit to Cleveland is sandwiched between two meetings with the Celtics.

Back-to-backs have had relatively little impact on the Raptors because bench.

Boston: 44-19 (23-11 at home, 21-8 on the road). B2B: 3.

Boston have won four straight since the all-star break and have 19 games remaining overall. 12 of their remaining games are against team above .500 (20-14).

They have a stretch between Mar. 16 and Apr. 4 where they play eight of 10 games on the road, and the two home games are against the Oklahoma City Thunder and your Raptors. If there is a time for Toronto to cement their place at the top, this is it.

Based on the evidence, I’ll say yes, the Raptors will finish with the top seed in the conference for the first time in their history.

Will the Cavaliers hold on to the three-seed?

Cleveland: 36-25 (21-10 at home, 15-15 on the road). B2B: 2.

So, assuming the Raptors finish with the top seed, what then becomes a concern is when they would have to deal with Superman aka Black Panther aka LeBron James.

I’ll be the first to admit that when the Cleveland Cavaliers made their moves, I thought there was a real possibility they could catch the Celtics — amidst their struggles — for the No. 2 seed. Considering the Cavs have actually lost ground since the all-star break, consider that dream dead.

Look at the standings now, and the Wizards are just a half-game behind as they’ve extended their success without John Wall. Bradley Beal is playing like a superstar, Otto Porter has stepped up in Wall’s absence, and the bench hasn’t disintegrated in their minutes unlike years past.

The Cavs have just about an even split of games remaining home and away, but it’s really hard to get a read on them right now. They stormed out of the gate with their new faces and throttled the Celtics and Thunder, but their defensive struggles have forced their way through the cracks.

One of the underrated factors in their final stretch is that King James is making a concerted effort to play all 82 games this season, having played all 60 thus far. That he is doing so in his 15th season is ridiculous. Seriously, we do not appreciate his greatness enough.

Because of the limited time they have to get it together with new faces, I do expect them to ignore the rest factor and do their best to get acclimated to each other till the very end of the season. That should be enough to hold on to what they have.

Washington: 36-26 (18-12 at home, 18-14 on the road). B2B: 4.

The Wizards have 20 games remaining, with 11 at home and nine on the road. 14 of their games are against teams over .500 (against whom they’re a respectable 17-16), including a stretch of 10 straight beginning Friday against the Raptors. They are a team that has historically played to the level of their competition, so they should be an intriguing team to keep an eye on to see whether they sink or swim over their brutal final quarter of the season.

One thing that could throw a spanner in the works is the return of Wall. He’s expected back in late March or early April, around when they have games against the Spurs, Rockets, and Cavaliers, and those aren’t really the ideal games in which you want to work someone into the lineup.

Philadelphia: 33-27 (19-10 at home, 14-17 on the road). B2B: 4.

The 76ers are poised for a run here. Not only are just eight of their final 22 games come against teams over .500, 10 of the opponents they face have won less than 40 percent of their games. They could very easily get to the 46-47 win range from here.

The only thing that could pose a problem is the number of back-to-backs, but Embiid’s participation in such scenarios of late does bolster their chances of sneaking home court advantage for the first round. As we saw earlier, the Wizards — for as well as they’ve played without Wall — face a tough task maintaining their standing down the stretch.

I think they get past the Wizards for the fourth spot so we’re looking at a potential Raptors-Wizards/Sixers second round.

Who will the Raptors lose to in Game 1 of the first round?

This is the million-dollar question. If there was ever a way to turn anyone that’s still a doubter into a believer when the playoffs begin, it’s to win their first game of the postseason for the first time in franchise history. Who would they have to pull that off against?

Miami: 32-30 (16-13 at home, 16-17 on the road). B2B: 2.

I don’t have too much faith in the Heat. Yes, they’ve given the Raptors fits this season and have a boatload of wings to throw at DeMar DeRozan. Then there’s Goran Dragic. I just can’t see them beating the Raptors four times in a series. Heck, I’d be shocked if they won three. If the Raptors really want to make a statement, dust them in five or less.

The current holders of the eighth seed should fancy their chances of at least holding on to the final playoff spot, with 12 of their final 20 games at home. However, they haven’t been great at home this season and have never really got going.

They signed Dwyane Wade to give the team a boost after they lost five straight, but it seemed to just paper over the cracks. They are 3-4 with him, and needed a 15-point fourth quarter from Wade County to rally past the Bucks.

Half of their games are against teams over .500 (15-19), but I’ve got Mar. 25 circled for when they visit Indiana. The Heat currently hold the tie-breaker lead at 2-1, and that will be the final meeting between the two teams. Read Indiana below for why this will likely matter.

Milwaukee: 33-28 (19-12 at home, 14-16 on the road). B2B: 2.

The honeymoon period for Joe Prunty’s Bucks is certainly over. After a 9-2 stretch which had the rest of the league quaking in their boots, they’ve come back down to earth and lost four of their last five games.

12 of their 21 games are against teams over .500 and they’re a dismal 13-21 on the season against the upper echelon. That’s why I don’t have them competing for the third seed, and left in a dog fight for home court.

Indiana: 34-27 (21-11 at home, 13-16 on the road). B2B: 2.

SIXTEEN of their final 21 games are against teams over .500, with five of those teams having won at over a 70 percent clip this season. They’ve been great at Bankers Life Fieldhouse but have only nine games remaining there. I’m not sure how they don’t slip. At this point, they’re 12-16 against teams at .500 or better.

Victor Oladipo has really struggled with his three-point stroke in 2018, shooting just 30.8 percent from three in January, and a criminal 23.4 percent on 5.9 attempts in February. They’re coming off a couple of bad losses in Dallas and Atlanta, and if there’s a team to potentially slide for the Heat to catch, they’re the ones I’d watch out for.

In case you’re wondering…

Detroit: 29-32 (20-13 at home, 9-19 on the road). B2B: 3.

The Pistons play 13 of their 21 remaining games on the road, where, as you can see above, they’re abysmal. All four of the wins they got out of the gate after Blake Griffin made his debut came against teams that were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Reggie Jackson is due back in mid-March, and considering how complicated a fit is between Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Jackson, they need a training camp more than anything.

There’s no time for that right now, so I’d be surprised if they disturbed the lower playoff seeds.

Charlotte: 28-34 (18-15 at home, 10-19 on the road). B2B: 2.

The Hornets are just as bad on the road and they play 12 of their 20 remaining games away from the Spectrum Center. They play Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia at the end of March/early April and that should seal their fate.

Four back in the loss column for the final playoff spot is just going to be too much to overcome.

Final prediction:

  1. Toronto
  2. Boston
  3. Cleveland
  4. Philadelphia
  5. Milwaukee
  6. Washington
  7. Miami
  8. Indiana

So, that leaves the Raptors with the afternoon NBA TV series against the Pacers, either The Process or The Greek Freak in the second round, before King James or whoever you think makes it out of the bottom half.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below and feel free to @ me when I’m inevitably wrong about all of this.

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