Raptors Wrap: To The Wire
The Raptors have just three games remaining on their regular season schedule, and it’s time to tighten up before the postseason.
With 47 wins they can still run the table by beating Miami, Boston, and Charlotte for their first 50-win season in franchise history, but it won’t be easy with desperate Heat and Celtics squads fighting for playoff berths.
Toronto is currently even with Chicago for third place in the Eastern Conference. If the Raptors lose any of their remaining games, they just stumble into a series of dream playoff opponents.
At fourth in the East, the Raptors will almost surely meet the Wizards in the first round. All season long Dwane Casey has preached three milestones:
Make the playoffs – Yup
Win the Atlantic Division – Got it!
Advance in the playoffs – Sorry Wizards…
Toronto has won all three matchups against Washington this season, and went 3-1 against them last year.
If they advance to the second round, they would face the winners of Atlanta vs the #8 seed, and the Raptors match up well against the Hawks too – they’re 3-1 against the top team in the East. No other team has beat Atlanta thrice.
By no means does this make Toronto a favourite to make the Eastern Finals, but this path avoids Cleveland who Toronto went 1-3 against, and a Chicago team that swept the Raptors 4-0.
If everything goes the Raptors’ way in the first round against the Wizards, Paul Pierce has aged since last year when he daggered the Nets past Toronto, Jonas Valanciunas neutralizes Gortat and Nene in the post, a rested Lowry runs Wall ragged, and the deep bench powers the team through second-unit stretches.
Speaking of a rested Lowry, he returned to the tune of 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 33 minutes Friday night in a win over Orlando.
Lowry first tweaked his back against Minnesota March 18th, missed the next two games, tried to return but played just 11 minutes, then sat the next seven contests to allow himself to get back into game shape.
“It feels way better,” Lowry told assembled media after Friday’s shootaround. “I think last time I rushed it and this time I took my time and honestly it was still hurting until about a week ago or a couple days ago so now it’s starting to feel a little bit better so I’m a little more confident and optimistic in what my back can do.”
Success against Wall and Washington hinges on Toronto’s lone All-Star, a weary warrior battling through the end of the longest and most successful season of his career.
DeRozan has rounded back into form after injury and is playing some of the best basketball of his career. If Lowry can do the same the Raptors will be back on track.
JV Is The Key
Lowry and DeRozan playing at their peak will be crucial but the factor that could bump Toronto into legitimate playoff contenders is the emergence of Jonas Valanciunas.
JV can get it done on both ends, has been better at keeping the ball high on second-chance opportunities, and has been posting up deeper under the basket to take advantage of his size.
Earlier in the season Valanciunas would take position further from the hoop and try to fake his way to an open lane, often ending up with an ineffective and contested running scoop shot.
With teammates more willing to pass to Jonas deep in the post, JV has been happier to return the favour hitting open shooters when wing defenders double down to help in the paint.
More ball movement is key to keep defenses moving, especially against stingy stoppers like possible first-round opponents Washington and Milwaukee. The Wizards are fifth and Bucks third in defensive efficiency this season.
“For us, next week is way more important than right now,” Casey said after Friday’s win.
And with the focus now shifting to the postseason, the Raptors just have to take care of themselves and take care of business down the home stretch.