Which top seed should fear Toronto the most?

We already knew the east was going to be tough but the Raptors have a case to make against the top four seeds.

The Toronto Raptors find themselves in a rather unusual situation compared to past years. After a down year in Tampa, the Raps are poised to return to the playoffs and it’s not as a top-four seed. After the most successful period in franchise history, a new era is being ushered in and while these Dinos may not be as experienced, they’re stubborn and have too much fight to be overlooked. After sweeping a very tough western conference road trip, with stops in San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, and against both L.A. teams, the Raptors have proven to be the most stubborn team in the league. Night in and night out, this team is aware of the doubters and proceeds to prove them wrong. That’s why they’re going to be that much more of a nuisance come playoff time, something Miami, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Boston are all aware of.

Let’s break it down.

Miami

How coincidental would it be for Kyle Lowry’s Miami Heat to begin their quest for a championship against Fred VanVleet’s Toronto Raptors? I mean that’s Hollywood as hell… at least north of the border. It’d be an interesting matchup that could go either way. I’m not of the belief that Miami would take it in six and maybe you think that’s plain homerism on my part. Toronto will see Miami once more this coming Sunday, and Toronto will properly be able to give him all the flowers he deserves. But, what if he makes a couple more visits to his former hometown?

What’s so interesting about this matchup is that Miami and Toronto are so similar. Tough-minded and motivated point guards, defensive-minded wing players, and both have big men who are capable of having the offense run through them. In the three games between the Heat and Raptors, the North took two, including a tantalizing triple-overtime thriller which saw all five starters log more than 50 minutes. That same game, South Beach had one player log 50, four players log 40, and four more players log at least 17 minutes.

Now with that being said, the fact Miami was able to reach down their bench and Toronto relied heavily on their starters should tell you everything you need to know about depth between these two teams. Miami’s bench ranks first in points on a nightly basis, while Toronto is dead last in that category. In the playoffs, teams usually call upon their starters to play heavier minutes but that may come back to bite Toronto if they can’t figure out a way to keep their guys fresh, especially against Miami.

On the flip side, Toronto’s starters are third in the league when it comes to scoring while Miami’s starters are 26th, so while Miami may be able to outlast Toronto with their depth, the Raptors starters are not adverse to playing long minutes, with all five starters ranking within the top 30 for minutes played:

Fred VanVleet – 37.9 (1st)
Pascal Siakam – 37.7 (2nd)
OG Anunoby – 36.3 (8th)
Scottie Barnes 35.7 (15th)
Gary Trent Jr. – 34.8 (28th)

Miami’s top minute-logger is Lowry, who’s 40th with 34 minutes a night.

What should Miami fear the most in a potential series with Toronto? Fatigue and persistence.

Philadelphia

The ghost of playoffs past? Another team that really doesn’t strike fear in anyone’s heart. Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate, no question and James Harden, he’s easily one of the greatest offensive players in the games history. But can they make a deep playoff run after spending just over a quarter of the season together?

What Daryl Morey was able to pull off in acquiring Harden for disgruntled star Ben Simmons was best-case scenario. Everyone thought he was off his rocker for not expediting a Simmons trade ASAP but he clearly knew what he wanted and got it done. Since the deadline, Philly is rolling. The team has won 14 of their last 21 but again, there’s no “fear factor” when it comes to the 76ers.

As I mentioned, the sample size is equivalent to a smarty but the 76ers aren’t dominating in any particular aspect. I understand that the two-man game of Harden and Embiid is a scintillating thought for anyone that enjoys basketball, and while Philly isn’t near the bottom of the league when it comes to ‘PNR’ situations, they’re also not a team that utilizes it as often as they should. Maybe it’s the coaching or maybe it’s the way the roster is constructed.

Regardless, he 76ers offense is going to be simple: Harden initiates an iso and when double-teamed he’ll throw it down to Joel Embiid. When Embiid is unable to get his shot off inside, he’ll kick it out to a shooter. However, it’d be foolish to dismiss Tyrese Maxey and his effectiveness in a potential matchup with Toronto. He should be garnering some serious MIP consideration.

But back to Harden and Embiid: If we’ve figured that out, do you think that the Raptors and other teams have as well?

What should Philly fear the most in a potential series with Toronto? Coaching.

Milwaukee

Okay so this might be one where the Raptors actually undermine the Bucks.

Not really, but the Dinos sweeping the regular season series doesn’t mean anything. The Bucks are still the reigning champions and while some may argue that they were inches away from a completely different future (literally speaking, given that KD’s foot was on the 3-point line in last years playoffs), facts are facts.

I don’t actually believe that the Raptors would take their foot off the pedal against any opponent. The team has an “us against the world” mentality wherever they go and it’s likely to ramp up with the amount of American media outlets who will be quick to dismiss them as viable first-round upsets. With Milwaukee though, there’s a history.

The Bucks are on top of the world and likely aren’t concerned with what seed they end up with. After winning a ring, teams aren’t as concerned about securing home court. Nothing really matters except for winning. Mike Budenholzer, over his nine years of coaching has a stellar 712-422 record. Yet, in the 32 times he’s faced the Raptors, he’s won just 12 contests. In the playoffs, that number increases to 14 but that’s accounting for 38 games.

The number-one priority for Toronto when playing Milwaukee is to neutralize Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Raptors have done that better than any other team, as Nurse devised a game plan known as “the wall”. It was on full display in the 2019 playoffs with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, both of whom were past their primes (okay maybe not Ibaka). Seeing as how most of Toronto’s roster is made up of players who are six-nine and have wingspans the length of The Great Wall in China, it’s as if Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster thought to themselves “let’s make a whole roster of Giannises” and went to work. Either way, it’s looking like a good short-term move with tremendous long-term upside.

What should Milwaukee fear the most in a potential series with Toronto? Preparation.

Boston

This is who I feel will be Toronto’s toughest test in the playoffs. I don’t know what it is but every time the Raptors take on the Celtics, there’s a level of anxiousness I get because of how good Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are. Obviously things didn’t start out that way, especially when the Celtics lost to Toronto 115-83 at the beginning of the season.

Fast forward to today, the Celtics are 30-10 since the beginning of 2022 which is second to the league-leading Phoenix Suns. Some other key stats for Boston since the new year:

  • 113.2 PPG (11th)
  • 48% FG (4th)
  • 13.7 3PM (7th)
  • 36.9 3P% (5th)
  • 82.6 FT% (2nd)
  • 46.3 RPG (4th)
  • 25.8 APG (9th)
  • 6.4 BPG (2nd)
  • 11.9 +/- (1st)

In other words, the Celtics are really, really good. They can generate offense in anyway they want, their defense is solid and it seems like they’ve reached another gear after starting the season 18-21. Before the 2021-22 campaign began, I actually had Tatum as my pick to win MVP and while that’s almost certainly not going to come to fruition, he’s at least in the conversation.

Speaking of Tatum, he mentioned a couple weeks ago that the playoff series Boston had with Toronto in the bubble was the toughest one he’s ever been a part of. While that may be the case, Boston still walked away with the W and left Toronto in the dust. Overall, I think Boston had a chip on their shoulder. After falling to the Nets in last years playoffs in 5 games, there’s no question that this Boston team is out to prove that they’re legitimate. Toronto evened-up the season series by squeaking out an OT win on Monday, but the Celtics were missing Tatum, Brown, Robert Williams, and Al Horford.

That speaks volumes to just how deep and determined the Celtics are.

What should Boston fear the most in a potential series with Toronto? Exhaustion.

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