There are two primary reasons for the Raptors to want to lock down the No. 2 seed, and to do so quickly: An easier first-round playoff opponent and the standings-certainty that allows them to manage their final games with an holistic approach instead of focusing purely on wins.
That thinking previously included home-court advantage against whoever comes out of the No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup in the second round of the playoffs. The NBA has not confirmed whether their earlier discussions about finding a way to simulate or otherwise influence home-court advantage went anywhere, but it stands to reason that it won’t be as significant a factor as in normal postseasons. It might still be a factor, but the big draw here is getting to play the Magic or Nets instead of one of Boston, Miami, Indiana and Philadelphia.
There is no disrespect intended there to the Magic or Nets, who won’t just lie down, there is just a pretty thick line of demarcation after No. 6 in the East. Orlando is a tough, defensive-minded team who posed some challenges to a better Raptors offence a year ago, but it’s unclear whether Jonathan Isaac will be back. The same goes for Al-Farouq Aminu, although they’re expected to have Evan Fournier back. Those are long layoffs even if those players can suit up, and the talent gap between the Raptors and Magic exists even if Orlando is healthy. Brooklyn, meanwhile, won’t have Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, meaning they could still shooting-variance their way into a win or two and probably not much more.
What may be just as important is winning early so that the entire roster of 17 can be managed effectively to keep everyone ready. The sooner the Raptors lock up their seeding, the sooner they can focus on the right combination of rust and rest with such a condensed pre-playoff schedule.
As Nurse told David Aldridge this week, his plan is to try to keep all 17 players ready, knowing that injury or a positive COVID-19 test could strike. It’s simply far riskier than usual to approach the postseason with a seven- or eight-man rotation, and “next man up” could be taken to the regular season extreme we saw earlier in the year. So while you might see the rotation tighten against Boston, a win there could allow Nurse the flexibility to play a rotating group of 11 or 12 from there to make sure anyone who needs to be called on in the playoffs hasn’t gone months without action.
As the NBA began to formulate its return-to-play plan, the Raptors knew that hosting the initial phase of their training camp outside the Toronto market was a possibility. That gave them an opportunity to come to grips with having to be the first team to be separated from their families for more than two months. The earliest that family members could join Toronto players in Florida would be at the end of August, after the first round of the playoffs, if they advance. Because the NBA’s current plans don’t include guest arrivals for coaches and team staff, the Raptors’ staffers who are already in Florida could go nearly four months without seeing their families.
“I haven’t sensed any discontent or whatever about having to be here, or asking why,” Nurse said. “In general, the guys are good, and I think most of them are concerned about their careers and getting back to wherever they were or getting them better. I think there’s a real level that I see … the care factor is high.”
Nurse also believes his roster is well-equipped to handle the pressure of interacting with pretty much only one another for multiple months.
“There’s some genuine chemistry with these guys,” he said. “They like to play in general, they like to play with each other, the love of the game. … I would give a lot of our guys a lot of high marks in those areas.”
And they’re not thinking about the length of their commitment.
“Right now, we’re not,” Nurse said on Saturday. “Maybe at some point on the back end of it, or midway through it, we might. But I just don’t know.
“We’re, what, five days in? They’ve been a snap of a finger. They’ve blown by. So it doesn’t feel like a burden or overwhelming. It just feels like we’re all starting and getting ready to go.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the defending champion Raptors are one of the teams with the most to gain from the resumption of the NBA season. Toronto, which will begin play in second place in the Eastern Conference standings, has the fourth-best odds of making the NBA Finals among all 22 teams and has third-best odds to repeat as champions, according to simulations run by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton using ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus.
After virtually every member of Toronto’s core rotation missed a month or more with injuries during the season, the Raptors are now as close to 100% as any team in the league.
“The vibe around the players is good,” Nurse said. “They look physically great.”
Outside Toronto’s Fort Myers bubble, though, there are larger concerns.
Boston has a three-game deficit in the East, but the Celtics own the tie-break with the Raptors and will play them once in Orlando. If they win that game and cut the lead to two, Toronto (25 points) might struggle to keep their edge. Boston’s Charmin-soft 20-point slate will see it heavily favored in five other games (Washington, Portland, Memphis, Brooklyn, and Orlando), while Toronto must face the Lakers, Bucks, Nuggets, Heat and Sixers. The Celtics would probably need to go 7-1 or 8-0 and hope the Raptors muddle to 4-4 or similar, but it’s still on the table.
Obviously, the second seed isn’t as valuable without homecourt advantage at stake in the conference semifinals, but there is still a major advantage here – the second seed gets to face the East’s seventh seed in the first round. That team (currently Brooklyn) is eight-and-a-half games behind Philadelphia in the standings and on a different planet in terms of available talent.
Looking at the schedule more closely, there are two in games in particular that jump out and are especially ones the Raptors can ill afford to drop: Aug. 7 against Boston and Aug. 12 versus Philadelphia.
This is because, looking at the standings right now, Toronto holds a 3.0 game lead over the Celtics for No. 2 and the 76ers are currently tied with the Indiana Pacers, but because Indiana holds the tiebreaker Philly is currently in sixth.
At the moment, at No. 2 in the East, the Raptors would be slated to face the shorthanded Brooklyn Nets or, if they’re able to climb up, the Magic or Washington Wizards. Regardless who of that trio ends up at No. 7, it would still make for a much easier first-round opponent than the likes of the Sixers or Pacers.
And this is why it’s important that Toronto beats Boston and Philadelphia when they meet during the seeding games.
Mathematically it’s pretty hard for the Raptors to blow a 3.0 game lead, but it’s still possible and one of the best ways to make sure they don’t choke would be take care of business against Boston.
Some might see the Raptors’ inclusion here as one of those “which one of these doesn’t belong?” exercises, but rest assured Toronto earned its place in this elite tier.
The Raptors are the defending champs, a team that actually improved its winning percentage and net rating after losing Leonard and Green in the offseason. Pascal Siakam’s ascent, Kyle Lowry’s status as one of the smartest, most competitive point guards in the league, Serge Ibaka’s renaissance campaign and OG Anunoby’s quiet rise into the league’s upper echelon of one-on-one shutdown defenders give the Raptors a legitimate shot to repeat.
Head coach Nick Nurse proved his mettle as the game’s top strategic coach last postseason, cracking the Bucks’ code and then deploying a box-and-one, basically unheard of at the professional level, to smother Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the Finals.
We should assume the Raptors will again dictate the terms of engagement in every series, hitting opponents with tactical tweaks and surprising looks that, based on recent history, have a great chance of working.
Much depends on Siakam, who’ll be primarily responsible for filling the superstar void left by Leonard’s departure. The 26-year-old forward leapt to All-NBA levels this season, adding off-the-bounce threes, upping his assist rate and cutting his turnover rate while taking on the high-usage role of a superstar. He’s ready for the challenge, and he’ll have loads of battle-tested help (we haven’t even mentioned Marc Gasol or Fred VanVleet yet) at his side.
As positive COVID-19 cases continue rising in Florida, so too do the concerns of NBA fans, players, and staff alike! Having the NBA re-start in a State with looser pandemic safety protocols was always going to be risky. What we’re witnessing is the realization of those fears. As players returned to their respective home markets, initial test results were given, and the outcome was 16 positive tests too many — to be exact, 16 players out of 302 tests. What are your thoughts on the number of positive tests an how do you feel about the NBA’s return now? Has it differed positively, negatively, or the same from when Adam Silver announced it would finish the 2019-20 season?
Players had until June 25 to opt-out of returning to play without being penalized. Only three players chose to sit out — Davis Bertans, Trevor Ariza, and Avery Bradley (Willie Cauley-Stein joined this list after we recorded). However, many teams are relying on July 1st as the unofficial deadline, as that’s when they finalize their respective 17-man rosters.
Evan Fournier took this week’s honours for the “He said whaaaaatt??” award — a truly remarkable feat considering the current social climate. He tweeted his opinion on players opting out. Check the episode to hear my opinion, but feel free to leave yours in the comments.
As players opt out or test positive for COVID-19, teams are allowed an additional roster spot. Some old faces have resurfaced on new teams, including Tyler Johnson, Trey Burke, and Jerian Grant. One name that’s raising eyebrows (again) is JR Smith. Should he sign with the Lakers, he’d join Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Javale McGee, and Dion Waiters as the latest former headcase to play alongside LeBron James (again).
Jason shifted gears on Dre and I when he asked us for our personal holy grails. If money wasn’t an issue and you could have two items (one sports-related and one non-sports-related), what would they be? Surprisingly, none of us chose anything Raptors-related.
The Raptors play a number of teams that are trailing them in the standings – the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic. However, the Celtics are the only team with a realistic chance of catching them and changing the seeding, and even that isn’t very “realistic”.
The Raptors and Celtics ended play with the same amount of games completed, making the winning percentage calculation really easy. Boston needs to finish their eight-game schedule with four more wins than the Raptors to leap-frog them for the second seed. If the Raptors go 3-5, the Celtics would have to go 7-1, etc.
That’s not very likely. If social media is to be believed however, it seems to be a goal the Celtics have made for themselves, and that makes this matchup an intriguing one.
It’s game #4 on the Raptors’ schedule, which means if they start off strong in Orlando, they could be officially putting the Celtics dreams of the two seed to bed with a win. It also is a good preview of what is probably going to be a second-round matchup, when No. 2 plays No. 3.
Add in the fact that by game four, the Raptors should be running smoothly. As such, this game becomes must-watch TV.
On the conference call and in the media release there was considerable talk of “strategies to increase Black representation across the NBA and its teams, ensure greater inclusion of Black-owned and operated businesses across NBA business activities, and form an NBA foundation to expand educational and economic development opportunities across the Black community.”
On the call, Silver said: “We think this is a unique opportunity for many reasons. I’m reluctant to make promises. Ultimately, we should be judged by our actions. We may be the most uniquely qualified organization in the world to effect change.”
Earlier Friday, the NBA revealed that 302 players were tested on June 23 and 16 have tested positive for COVID-19. Silver said on the call that they were relieved that none of the 16 were seriously ill.
The defending champion Toronto Raptors are already in a different part of Florida, having arrived in Fort Myers on Monday. Group workouts will only begin once teams have reported to the NBA Campus at Disney.